Randall Hill/Reuters
A guard tower is seen at the Lee Correctional Institution in Bishopville, S.C., on April 16. An app called Promise aims to secure the release of poor people, particularly people of color, awaiting trial or sentencing.

New app aims to keep the poor out of pre-trial jail

Amid moves to reform the prison system, an app called Promise aims to secure the release of poor people awaiting trial or sentencing through remote monitoring. Users receive reminders about court appearance dates and documents required. 

Rap mogul Jay-Z is among investors backing a United States technology startup helping to free defendants who cannot afford bail, amid moves to reform a system that critics say criminalizes poverty, especially people of color.

After receiving $3 million in funding, a "decarceration" phone app called Promise, aims to secure the release of poor people awaiting trial or sentencing, through remote monitoring.

"Most people are unaware that more than 70 percent of people in jails haven't been convicted of anything," said Phaedra Ellis-Lamkins, the entrepreneur who co-founded the California-based business with a social mission.

"They are awaiting trial and locked up simply because they lack funds for bail.... Our goal is to use technology to create scale to keep many people out of jail," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

The US has the world's highest prison rates, with more than 2 million people incarcerated at a cost of about $80 billion a year, according to the Prison Policy Initiative, a Massachusetts-based think tank.

Pressure for justice reform is mounting, with a shift from tough-on-crime measures, which increased incarceration rates, to reducing spending on jails swollen with the poor, mentally ill, and people with substance abuse problems.

Reform advocates say the system disproportionately keeps low-risk defendants who cannot pay bail behind bars while awaiting trial – especially African-Americans – even for minor offenses.

"We are increasingly alarmed by the injustice in our criminal justice system," said Jay-Z, or Shawn Carter, in a statement by his Roc Nation entertainment company, which represents recording artists and athletes.

"Money, time and lives are wasted with the current policies. It's time for an innovative and progressive technology that offers sustainable solutions to tough problems."

The US prison population has surged from the 1990s due to longer sentencing for drug offenses, leading many to push for reduced prison terms for nonviolent crimes.

New York and Chicago launched programs in 2015 to release without bond thousands of detainees under monitored supervision until their cases are resolved.

New Jersey introduced similar reforms in 2017, leading to a 20 percent drop in its jail population, according to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), a rights group which is working on reform with a total of 38 states.

The cash bail system in the US, which has been abolished in many countries, requires people who have been arrested to give the court money as a guarantee that they will return at an appointed time.

Defenders who cannot afford bail can sit in jail for months awaiting trial, or hire one of the nation's 25,000 bail bond shops to post bail for them.

The bail industry makes a $2 billion profit each year, the ACLU says, with users typically paying a 10 percent, non-refundable fee, often in installments with high interest rates.

Promise assesses a defendant's needs, then develops an individual care plan, downloaded to their phone, which monitors and supports them.

Users receive reminders about court appearance dates and documents required, even directions and check-in procedures for court-ordered drug and alcohol treatments, said Ellis-Lamkins.

"I am incredibly hopeful that our company will help keep people out of jail," she said, adding that jurisdictions can choose to contract to work with Promise, which aims to be ready for use in May.

"I haven't met anyone who thinks the bail system is working."

African-Americans and Hispanics made up about 32 percent of the US population but 56 percent of all incarcerated people in 2015, according to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People rights group.

Udi Ofer, who heads ACLU's Campaign for Smart Justice, was cautious about Promise.

"People are complicated and can't be understood based solely on an algorithm or a pre-programmed response," he said.

"The most important thing is to provide people alternatives to cash bail in a way that is supportive and that leads to the elimination of wealth-based incarceration."

This story was reported by the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

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