November 17, 2017

Criminal justice reform can now get a boost from tech users, i.e. all of us


The criminal justice system in the United States has been targeting and suppressing minorities and poor people for decades, and reforms to combat institutional racism have been stalled or ignored by legislators. But if there’s anything we’ve learned this past year, it’s that Americans do have immense power when they get organized. (Think of antifa activities across the US, which drove massive media attention to Mark Bray’s Antifa: The Anti-Fascist Handbook and made it a bestseller, for instance.) For Motherboard, Jordan Pearson reports on the latest attempt at fighting the powers that be: a new app, pioneered by the online magazine The New Inquiry, called Bail Bloc.

To design the app, Pearson writes, the magazine teamed up with the Bronx Freedom Fund, a nonprofit that provides bail to indigent criminal defendants, “restor[ing] the presumption of innocence by keeping clients with their families, at their jobs, and out of jail while they await trial.” Once Bail Bloc is installed on a phone, it marshals that phone’s computing power to mine cryptocurrency. (Cryptocurrencies are digital currencies generated over encrypted computer networks, by a process called “mining.” The best-known cryptocurrency is Bitcoin; the New Inquiry project uses one called Monero, partly because, as editors explain in an FAQ, Monero can be profitably mined on consumer-grade electronics, whereas some alternatives, like Bitcoin, require specialized chips. If you want a great primer on cryptocurrency and to hear Terry Gross freak out about twenty-first-century technology, check out this Fresh Air episode.) Participants just have to download the app: Bail Bloc takes over a user-selected amount of background processing power, and gets to work mining. The cryptocurrency is then converted into US dollars, which are quickly donated to the Bronx Freedom Fund.

Maya Binyam, an editor at the New Inquiry, told Pearson, “We’re a publishing platform created by and for communities that have been historically targeted by the state, which means that our access to capital is limited, as is true for most millennials. What we do have access to, however, is computing power. And so on a practical level, fundraising through mining makes sense.” Binyam continues later in the article, “Like all forms of surveillance, bail is designed to keep people deemed dangerous within reach. But the powers that assess an individual’s likelihood to endanger the public are more often motivated by racism, classism, and xenophobia than they are by a desire to ensure safety.”

The Bail Bloc team helps clarify the app’s value—and makes the decision to download it easy—by offering an overview of the app’s effectiveness in easily understood terms. As Pearson notes, “Bail Bloc estimates that if 5,000 people ran its software for a year, they could generate $151,000 USD worth of Monero and bail nearly 2,000 people out of jail. The app takes 10 percent of your CPU power by default, but generous users can set it so that they donate 25 or even 50 percent of their computing power.”

Bail relief seems to be in the air right now. For Mashable, Emma Hinchliffe reports on Bail Bloc alongside another new app, Appolition, which synchs to a user’s credit card account, rounds each purchase up to the nearest dollar, and donates the difference to a bail assistance fund. Kortney Ziegler, the app’s creator, told Hinchliffe she’d gotten the idea after a recent, successful campaign to raise bail money for black mothers. “I was inspired to see collective crowdfunding for black folks and wondered how to create a technical platform that does the same thing.”

Then on Wednesday, Peter Libby of the New York Times reported that the Art for Justice Fund—a new initiative that philanthropist and emerita MOMA president Agnes Gund created after selling off Roy Lichtenstein’s 1962 painting “Masterpiece” for $165 million a few months ago—had announced its inaugural batch of thirty grantees, which include Color of Change, an organization devoted to “educating and mobilizing Americans about the need for bail reform,” and the National Book Foundation, who will use it to create a program called Literature for Justice, focused on mass incarceration.




Alex Primiani is the associate director of publicity at Melville House.