The advocates with a simple message: “Poverty is not a crime”


A note from the Pathfinders:

This edition of the Justice Champions of Change series is based on an interview with Clinton Washington of the Bronx Freedom Fund, conducted by Pathfinders’ Alisa Jimenez earlier this year. It is with a heavy heart that we share that Clinton has passed away amid the COVID-19 pandemic. At the request of his family and colleagues, we publish this interview to honor his life and work.

Clinton’s passion and commitment to his work, his family and to everyone he came in contact with lives on through the Bronx Freedom Fund’s legacy. The bail reform he, alongside many others, fought for is another testament to his dedication and perseverance. This is a deep loss to the justice community.

Clinton Washington (Photo: Bronx Freedom Fund)

A note from the interviewer, Alisa Jimenez:

Clinton’s love for his work and greater community became evident the moment we began to speak. Our conversation left me inspired, hopeful and deeply grateful for his work and that of his colleagues. I hope those reading will feel the same.

In 2019, New York State implemented a major reform of its bail system: eliminating cash bail and pretrial detention for the vast majority of charges. The reform means that people’s poverty will not cause them to languish in jail without being convicted of a crime. It makes it less likely that their lives will be upended, and saves New York State the costs of keeping them incarcerated.

At the heart of the grassroots campaign that pushed for reform, was an organization for whom this new legislation meant the end of its very existence. Since 2007, the Bronx Freedom Fund has posted bail for residents of the Bronx district of New York City who would otherwise have been unable to afford it. For thousands of individuals charged with misdemeanors whose bail was set at $2000 or less, the Fund’s assistance was critical in helping them avoid pre-trial detention. The Bronx Freedom Fund’s work did not stop with bail payments, it also connected clients with social services, and supported them throughout their cases.

The Fund’s work helped to break the link between income and the likelihood of incarceration. More than 90 per cent of its clients showed up for their court appearances, meaning that the returned bail money could be repurposed for future cases. More than half of clients had their cases dismissed, while the majority of the remainder received non-criminal dispositions.

For the latest installment of our Justice Champions of Change series, Alisa Jiménez of the Pathfinders for Justice spoke to the Bronx Freedom Fund’s Clinton Washington about his organization’s work.

Alisa: Before we talk about the bail reform campaign, could you tell me about the Bronx Freedom Fund?

Clinton: The project originated from the Bronx Defenders, a holistic public defender office which helps low-income Bronx residents in legal cases. They saw an increasing number of people in pre-trial detention who were pleading guilty regardless of their guilt or innocence. The only reason they did this was to avoid staying in jail any longer. The US and the Philippines are the only two countries in the world with a for-profit bail system. In New York, 98 percent of felony convictions are concluded by plea deals — they never go to trial (source).

We took the approach that we should pay bail for these people so that they don’t have to be in jail while they await trial, and then if we helped them understand and defend themselves against the charges they faced, they’d have a better result.

Alisa: Can you talk about your own role?

Clinton: I’m a client advocate. Client advocates connect people to resources that help them maintain stability. Because there are collateral consequences of getting arrested. Once someone is arrested they are not considered part of the public anymore, and are not afforded public services they may receive otherwise, they are considered a prisoner, placing them in a vulnerable position.

We take a holistic approach — it’s not just about paying bail, but the entire justice journey. If someone is in jail while awaiting trial they lose control of their life. By the time they get out they might have lost their jobs and their homes, their families might have broken up. We connect them to service providers and trusted partners from our network. We also assist by reminding them about court dates, updating them about the progress of their case, liaising with attorneys, and assisting those in need with transportation to court. We try to support people in continuing to fulfill their responsibilities to their families and employers.

Clinton Washington (Photo: Bronx Freedom Fund)

Alisa: What does success look like for a client?

Clinton: It’s really about empowerment. I meet people on the worst day of their lives every day. And there are levels of empowerment, rungs they can climb to get back towards normalcy.

The first, basic level, is to attend all of your court appointments. The second is when you are able to see how you fit into the system at large, how it works and how it’s often been built against you. That is really empowering for clients, it makes them realize they’re not alone and that their case is not only about them as individuals. And the third level is you are better off now versus when you were arrested, that you are able to be connected with a job, school, housing etc. My job is to create an environment that gives people tools to be empowered.

Alisa: Moving on to the bail reform campaign in New York State, one of the issues we discussed in the Task Force on Justice’s Justice for All report is the criminalization of poverty. I know the Bronx Freedom Fund had a lot to do with the reforms that were recently announced. Could you tell me about the background to that?

Clinton: We looked at the facts regarding our caseload. Almost all of our clients came back to court when they were supposed to, and over half of their cases were dismissed by prosecutors. Being out on bail meant our clients couldn’t be pressured by the District Attorney to accept a plea deal [which is done while individuals sit in pretrial detention] and be convicted, instead they could better prepare their defense.

But among people who remained in pre-trial detention because they couldn’t afford bail, more than 90 per cent pled guilty, and this showed to us that what happened to you once you were charged with a misdemeanor didn’t depend on whether you’d done anything wrong but on whether you could afford to stay out of jail. The whole system was unfair.

Alisa: How was the case for reform made?

Clinton: The advocacy case was based on three key messages, with each appealing to different audiences.

The first was about justice. We promoted the message that the bail system was inherently unjust. Whether you were freed or incarcerated depended on your socioeconomic status, and there were disproportionate effects on communities of color.

The second was about money. Financially it doesn’t make sense to keep people jailed just because they can’t afford bail. The cost of jailing someone in New York’s Rikers Prison for one year is more than the cost of sending someone to school at Harvard, so by keeping people out of jail we were saving money.

The third was about crime reduction. Incarceration, especially pretrial incarceration, has a criminogenic effect.

Alisa: So those are powerful messages for change. Can you tell what these reforms mean for an individual?

Clinton: The law means that most people who would normally be put in jail with a bail amount attached to their freedom are instead free while they await their trial, either released after arrest or not arrested at all and instead given a desk appearance ticket telling them when to show up in court. This gives them time between their arrest and their court date to prepare for the case and it enables them to continue their life and fulfill their obligations, acknowledging that there is often an irreversible domino effect experienced by those who languish in pretrial detention.

Alisa: What are your next steps on bail reform?

Clinton: The next step nationwide is the fight to address the issue in other cities. The Bronx Freedom Fund model has now been taken nationwide by an organization called the Bail Project, set up by our co-founder Robin Steinberg. The model is now being deployed in 30 different sites. And since our site doesn’t have to pay bail anymore its resources are going to move on to other sites to help get them to a point similar to where we are, and hopefully a lot further. Here in New York, we must end wealth-based detention altogether, and continue the fight for an end to the criminalization of poverty in other parts of our system.

Alisa: What would have to change?

Clinton: The biggest problem is the prevailing narrative that people are in jail because they’re bad.

In reality, people are in jail because they don’t have the money for their freedom or for good representation. And because they’re people of color. Incarceration is still a race issue. People will say there are towns where it’s mostly white people in incarceration, and that’s true. But even in those small towns, there’s a disproportionate amount of people of color in jail — if people of color are 1% of your town’s population, they’ll be 30% of its jail population.

So as a society, either you’re willing to say that people of color have a propensity for evil and are natural troublemakers, or say that something else is going on and acknowledge racism. It’s about changing the narrative of how we talk about crime.

Changing the narrative is very difficult because we still have TV shows like Cops in the US, and the movie franchise like Bad Boys. Kids see cartoons where the bad guys go to jail. There’s this mentality that jail is for the bad people, when that’s just not statistically true. Jail is often for people who can’t afford not to be there.

People remember stories, and we need to start telling accurate stories about jail, and changing the type of tales that we put in kids’ shows.

Alisa: Thinking of the future — what is next for the Bronx Freedom Fund?

Clinton: The Bronx Freedom Fund is a project. It’s not supposed to be an institution; it’s not supposed to last forever. It was supposed to help fix a particular problem and then close and use the resources for other things. It’s important to remember that a non-profit should have the goal of going out of business. When you’re doing this work, you’re doing it because there is an injustice that you’re trying to highlight, so that it will be fixed. The goal is for us no longer to be here, and we’re in the process of closing down. In the meantime, we are continuing to support our existing clients as well as our fellow organizers and advocates in the fight to protect and expand bail reform here in New York.

Clinton’s ambitions were far reaching, and he had many more he unfortunately did not live to fulfill. His life-changing work, positive outlook and deep commitment lives on as an inspiration to us all.

To read more justice Champions of Change interviews, visit: https://www.justice.sdg16.plus/champions-of-change.