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May 19, 2019

A bad bailout bet: Against the Robert F. Kennedy foundation’s drastic move

October 2, 2018
Kerry Kennedy and team (Michael Dabin / NEW YORK DAILY NEWS)

Last week, Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights made a surprise announcement: that they would bail all women and 16-to-17 year-olds out from Rikers Island starting Oct. 1. Many criminal justice reform advocates applauded the move.

Since then, though, celebration has given way to deep concern, especially among organizations that don’t just advocate for individuals in need, but actually serve them. The question we’re forced to ask the RFK Foundation is a simple but critical one: What happens next?Opening cell doors and getting people out of Rikers is the right thing to do, but we cannot forget to close those doors behind them.

How? By being on the other side of the jail gates ready with more than just volunteers and bail checks, but with the professional care and service-rich programming that can holistically address each individual’s needs.

To put it simply, lack of bail is not the sole problem in these people’s lives. It’s only a symptom of a wider set of challenges, deprivations and disadvantages that converge in a courtroom. Now add to their hardships a distant court date, an inability to find or afford an attorney, and family and work obligations. And that’s how posting bail without providing services becomes a recipe for re-incarceration.

All of that makes us wonder, why didn’t our phones ring before the press release went out? Why wasn’t the City Council, with so many of its members strong advocates for eliminating cash bail, or the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice, notified, so that at least some measure of city services could be at the ready?

Where are the legions of case managers, social workers and attorneys that these people will need in the coming weeks? Where is the housing for those who are homeless? And what happens when someone who’s been bailed out makes a mistake during this critical pre-trial period, and the punishment the courts levy is much, much more serious than jail?

The Foundation’s answers to these critical, urgent questions are disappointing at best. In an interview on MSNBC that aired on Sunday, Kerry Kennedy, founder and president of the Foundation, announced that individuals who are bailed out would be provided with a smartphone app to help them make their court appearances.

While apps are great for checking traffic or ordering food, they’re a ludicrous substitute for meaningful social services. And, of course, you have to be able to afford a smartphone in the first place to use one.

Let’s be clear: Cash bail is wrong. And detaining people because they’re poor is immoral. But so is temporarily freeing people from detention without a real plan to keep them out for good. That’s why The Doe Fund and other organizations like it set up charitable bail funds and social service programs under the law to serve them.

As inspiring as a sudden act of monetary generosity is, it can’t be confused with a sustainable, service-based solution that works within a system to correct it. In the absence of coordinated care, collaboration, and meaningful services, those who will suffer are exactly the people whom we seek to help.

By failing to answer the question, “What happens next?” a mass bailout risks exactly that — and it’s an outcome that terrifies those of us who have been working on this issue, and serving the people affected by it, for decades.

McDonald is founder and president of The Doe Fund, which provides paid work opportunities to homeless and formerly incarcerated individuals, and founder of The Liberty Fund, New York CIty’s first citywide charitable bail fund. Tingling is a retired justice of New York Supreme Court, whose Initiative Project works to educate the former incarcerated about and restore their voting and civil rights

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