A dollar doesn’t buy you much in New York City—but it can sometimes be the price of your freedom. Across the five boroughs, hundreds of people have been held in jail for a bail priced at just one dollar. The challenge posed by dollar bail is not generally affordability but the bail system itself—once someone is in jail, the process of bailing them out is extremely difficult, involving time-consuming travel, capricious security checks, and complicated paperwork. Even embarking on this process depends in the first place on detained people’s being made aware of the amount of their bail, which doesn’t always happen. Nonprofit community bail funds, like the Bronx Freedom Fund, have taken up the task, but referrals for dollar-bail clients come in at nearly the same rate as those for clients on $500 or $1,000 bails—the demand is simply too high for the organization’s capacity.
In this dilemma, New York University student Amanda Lawson saw an opportunity. You don’t have to be affiliated with a charitable organization to bail people out; anyone who can physically appear in jail can do it. And college students, with their relatively flexible schedules and pockets of free time, make a perfect volunteer force to provide a physical presence. That, and one dollar, is all that’s needed to bail out many New Yorkers held in jail with dollar bails.
And the people they could help often, unbeknownst to students, are held in the same neighborhoods where the students live. The Manhattan Detention Complex, commonly known as “The Tombs,” is one of the most notorious jails in the country, which, according to its website, detains about 13,500 people a day. It is also a six-minute walk from my dormitory building. That the detention complex is in the neighborhood is not something that’s advertised on the NYU website, nor is it widely known by students who live nearby—it even remains a mystery to longtime residents of the area. That’s the nature of socially stratified and gentrified cities like New York—you can at once live next to some of the wealthiest members of society and also blocks from thousands of legally innocent people who might not have the resources or personal network to make bail, trapping them in a 6- by 8-foot cell.
Judges typically set dollar bails when the accused has two or more cases open against them. The dollar bail goes to the minor case, such as theft of services (for example, jumping the subway turnstile) or marijuana possession, while a higher bail is set for the more serious case. According to a study by the Center for Court Innovation, while the practice is meant to ensure the defendant comes to court for the minor case, it also carries a “potential perverse result” where, unaware of the dollar bail, “defendants or their families or friends pay the larger bail…and defendants continue to be held on what is essentially an administratively-driven bail amount.”
This “potential perverse result” happens more frequently than you’d think, and many held solely on a dollar bail have already had the additional, more serious charges against them cleared. The only thing that keeps them imprisoned is the smaller amount, of which they are sometimes not even made aware—as in a case last year, where a two-dollar bail kept a Queens man in jail for almost five months.