App That Crowdsources Bail Lets Anyone Help Disrupt America’s Mass Incarceration

By Carey Wedler

The United States is known for having one of the highest incarceration rates in the world, fueled by the Drug War, a bought-off justice system, and the ever-flourishing prison-industrial complex.

With special interests from police unions to prison guard unions fueling mass incarceration (to say nothing of the private prison lobby), it is not difficult to understand why the supposedly freest country in the world has so much of its population behind bars.

At face value, the system’s corruption and breadth appear too overwhelming to tackle head on, but a new app places power in the hands of ordinary consumers, allowing them to chip away at some of the seemingly intractable authority of the U.S. prison system.

Appolition — a combination of “app” and “abolition” — is a simple program that allows users to donate pennies from their everyday purchases toward bail funds for people who otherwise cannot afford to gather the money. It simply rounds up transaction amounts on debit, credit, and PayPal to the nearest dollar and donates the difference to National Bail Out, an organization of grassroots groups that work “to end money bail and in the meantime get as many people out of cages and back to their families as we can.” Ultimately, this provides an easy, effective opportunity to disrupt a major component of mass incarceration.

According to National Bail Out:

Everyday tens of thousands of people languish in jail simply because they cannot afford bail. In addition to the over $9 billion wasted to incarcerate people who have been convicted of no crime, pre-trial incarceration has catastrophic impacts on families and communities. Even a few days in jail can ruin a person’s life. They may lose their job, their family may lose housing and some even lose their children.

Bail is so central to the American justice system that a $2 billion industry has cropped up around it. Much of the growth of mass incarceration is driven by the war on drugs. As National Bail Out notes:

Since 1980, the number of incarcerated people has grown by 500%. Fed by a racist War on Drugs, that our current Attorney General Jeff Sessions is trying to resurrect, millions of people have been taken from their families.

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By some measures, the incarceration rate has actually grown 1,000 percent since 1980, and at least part of this is due to the drug prohibition (it’s worth noting that Sessions isn’t so much “resurrecting” the Drug War as he is continuing it; though President Obama made some reforms, including not prosecuting cannabis offenses in states where it’s legal, his administration very much maintained the status quo).

Regardless, as National Bail Out highlights, the Drug War has, indeed, disproportionately affected minorities. For example, the ACLU has noted that “[m]arijuana use is roughly equal among blacks and whites, yet Blacks are 3.73 times as likely to be arrested for marijuana possession.”

However, the injustice is not only evident in Drug War cases. Troy Wilson, who developed the underlying technology for Appolition, experienced the system’s bail problem first-hand, and thanks to friends, was able to make his payment. However, he told Wired of other, not-so-happy endings. As the outlet summarized:

Kalief Browder, a 16-year-old accused of stealing a backpack who, unable to meet a $3,000 bail, spent three years at New York’s Rikers Island before charges were dismissed. In 2015, haunted by those three years plagued by violence and long stints in solitary confinement, Browder hanged himself.

According to 2014 data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), on any given day 450,000 people are behind bars simply awaiting trial.

This is no small number, and Appolition aims to reduce the amount of time individuals, in particular people of color, spend behind bars before ever having their day in court.

In May of last year, National Bail Out was able to raise $1 million for a Mother’s Day campaign, freeing 106 mothers across the country. They were able to facilitate the release of 71 additional people in June and August.

Users can sign up for the app here and can also make direct one-time or recurring donations.

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