A new charity initiative called Bail Bloc may have just found the only good use for cryptocurrencies to date: bailing people out of jail who can’t afford it.
Software that uses your computer power to “mine” (in other words, create) digital coins for profit have become a bit of a bogeyman online. But Bail Bloc—a collaboration between online publication The New Inquiry and the non-profit Bronx Freedom Fund—harnesses similar technology for more noble ends.
Bail—a court-determined fee to buy your freedom before trial—is intended to keep dangerous people off the streets. But according to The New York Times, “it can, in practice, have damaging effects on poor defendants, especially those who have been charged with small offenses.” Bail Bloc argues that the cash bail system keeps low-income people in jail when they don’t need to be, and can force innocent people to plead guilty in order to get out.
Starting on Wednesday, you can visit the Bail Bloc website and download an app that dedicates some of your computer power to generating Monero, a cryptocurrency that markets itself as being even more private and anonymous than Bitcoin. All of the generated Monero will be used to bail out people who can’t afford it. The project will start by focusing on New York City jails, but in 2018 “funds will spread to more than three dozen cities in the next five years,” the Bail Bloc site states.
“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,” Maya Binyam, an editor at The New Inquiry and organizer for Bail Bloc, wrote me in an email. “What we do have access to, however, is computing power. And so on a practical level, fundraising through mining makes sense.”
Monero was a logical choice, Binyam said, because it’s one of a few cryptocurrencies that can be mined with common consumer-grade graphics cards. Bitcoin, in contrast, is more popular but requires specialized high-speed computer chips. The Bail Bloc program points participants’ computers towards an existing Monero mining pool, but if it becomes popular enough the project may invest in starting its own pool.
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.
According to the Bail Bloc site, the project uses a “revolving” model. Bail funds are returned to the source when the defendant appears for their court date, so every Monero coin that’s generated could be used to bail more than one person out of jail. The Bronx Freedom Fund claims that more than 90 percent of the defendants they assist return to court, so this turnover could be quite high.
“Like all forms of surveillance, bail is designed to keep people deemed dangerous within reach,” Binyam wrote in an email. “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.”
“After all,” she continued, “the people for whom bail is set haven’t been convicted of anything.”