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Can Cryptocurrency Mining Help Fix Bail Reform?

Can cryptocurrency destabilize pretrial detention? Bail Bloc thinks so—and it's harnessing collective computer power to do just that.
According to a new estimate, the Bitcoin network could be using at least as much energy as all of Ireland.

Bitcoin mining.

Currently, there are about 881 computers using part of their computing powers to quietly mine the cryptocurrency Monero. Over just a couple of weeks, they've mined the equivalent of $3,559, which will be used to pay bail for low-income inmates in New York City.

The project is called Bail Bloc, and while the enthusiasm—and skepticism—around investment in cryptocurrency runs rampant, Bail Bloc has a different proposition for its members. Download an application onto your computer to mine Monero while you go about your daily tasks, which will then be used to pay bail for individuals who couldn't otherwise afford it.

The Prison Policy Initiative estimates that 630,000 people are in jail on any given day. Seventy percent are in pretrial detention, meaning they've not yet been convicted of any crime. Most of these individuals are staring down only minor charges, which wouldn't result in further jail time, but are faced with few options—none of them particularly appealing. They could stay in jail and await their trial, pay their bail and be released until they show up for their trial, or plead guilty in a deal from the prosecutor and be released.

If you can't pay bail, which is often the case for low-income individuals, then you may very well take a plea bargain if that's the difference between sitting in jail for sometimes weeks, or getting out the same day, whether you're guilty or not.

"I dreamt up Bail Bloc almost a year ago in the wake of [Donald] Trump's election," says Grayson Earle, one of Bail Bloc's leads and part of the Dark Inquiry, a project-driven collective of technologists, artists, writers, and investigative researchers working to deploy a series of situated, confrontational, rhetorically deliberate experiments through software.

"It felt like the Internet, vis a vis Facebook, had failed us in a major way. I wanted to give clicktivism a material effect on the world and enlist the help of our devices in activism," Earle says. He had done some Bitcoin mining on a lark in 2011 just to understand how decentralized cryptocurrency systems operated. While Earle found the heavy libertarian streak in the cryptocurrency scene off-putting, he did see the value of coin mining even then, vowing to eventually find a way to use it for good.

Earle brought the idea to the Dark Inquiry, which helped realize and transform the project with the help of Maya Binyam, who co-leads the project, and others on the team.

"From a critical standpoint, bail and cryptocurrency are a generative pair," Binyam says. "The state incarcerates people before they've been convicted of anything and then forces them to pay for their own release, propagating the faulty belief that cash for freedom is a legitimate legal exchange. Bail is a tool of coercion, predictive policing, and surveillance, but it is also a form of currency mining from low-income individuals and communities of color. Bail Bloc allows you to offer your computer as the target for that mining in their stead."

Bail Bloc gives 100 percent of the funds raised to the Bronx Freedom Fund, a non-profit with a revolving fund to pay bail for people accused of misdemeanors. The fund estimates it pays bail for about 100 people each month. According to data the non-profit has acquired since 2007, about 96 percent of its clients return for all their court dates, despite not having any of their own money on the line. Some 55 percent of its clients' cases result in a dismissal of all charges.

Conversely, 92 percent of defendants who stay in jail until the end of their case because they can't pay bail will plead guilty, forfeiting their constitutional right to trial, and acquiring a criminal record, just because they want to get home.

According to the Bail Project, a recently launched non-profit that seeks to take the Bronx Freedom Fund's model national, the cascading effects of even a single night in jail because of an inability to pay bail have stark consequences. A single night in jail can, and has, caused the loss of a job, a home, and, in some cases, custody of children. The Bail Project notes that 41 percent of sexual victimization in jail happens in the first three days, and almost 50 percent of all jail deaths, including suicides, occur within the first week.

Ezra Ritchin, who has served as project director at the Bronx Freedom Fund for the last two years, believes that the non-profit is calling into question the motivation behind bail in the first place, and what its purpose is.

"It's like the presumption of innocence is up for sale, and whether or not you can purchase that obviously falls along class and race lines," Ritchin says. "[In] creating a system that criminalizes race and poverty, we have actually created two systems, one that works in the way that someone might imagine, where you're innocent until proven guilty if you're wealthy enough to purchase that presumption, and one where you're guilty until proven innocent for those who can't afford to purchase it."

Binyam also sees this approach as a direct repudiation of what's commonly known as slacktivism. "Bail Bloc is very much meant to be a critique of slacktivism," she says. "Liberalism has conditioned the unfortunate situation that Bail Bloc tries to weaponize—namely, that people who believe themselves protected from state violence often need a techno-hook to undertake a political action. Their devices have the capacity to take a political action, even if they don't."

Even though a single user may only generate two to three dollars a month, given the low barrier to entry, and the passive mining of the cryptocurrency, the project has the potential to scale quickly. And given that bail funds are recycling, meaning once someone completes their court process the funds are returned, that means that a single dollar that's mined could fund multiple people's bail a year. So as more funds are raised, spent, and returned, more people can be helped.

"Every time a user downloads and runs Bail Bloc, they are disrupting and resisting a system that criminalizes race and poverty," Ritchin says. "It's allowing people to make a direct contribution and make a direct statement at the same time."