You can use your computer’s spare power to fund bail for US defendants

The US jails thousands of indigent defendants.
The US jails thousands of indigent defendants.
Image: Reuters/Jim Young
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A new app can use your personal computer’s unused power to mine cryptocurrency, and then direct the funds to make bail payments for US defendants. Bail is a refundable fee intended to make sure defendants show up to their day in court—but the result is that poor Americans accused of crimes often end up languishing in prison without having been convicted, simply because they can’t afford the fee.

The project, called Bail Bloc, launches today (Nov. 15) under the auspices of the online journal The New Inquiry, which says its goal is to “weaponize excess computing power against the Prison Industrial Complex.” The app uses 10% of your processor’s energy to mine the cryptocurrency Monero, with virtually no effort from the user. The funds, exchanged into dollars, will be funneled to a new national bail relief organization, The Bail Project.

The creators of the app underline that it won’t disrupt a user’s average computer tasks, and Bail Bloc won’t collect any personal information besides temporarily storing your IP address. They chose Monero because it requires significantly less energy than, for instance, bitcoin, and doesn’t require specialized hardware. The cryptocurrency also touts itself as completely anonymous and untraceable (all reasons for which hackers also like to use it, mining people’s computers surreptitiously).

The Bail Project, which will later use the funds, is a new venture that stems from The Bronx Freedom Fund, which has a decade of experience using donations to post cash bail. It’s now starting to expand nationwide, with $30 million in its coffers secured from donors such as Richard Branson.

The goal is to help release 160,000 poor defendants in 40 sites across the country within five years. The fund’s model allows for the money to be recycled: if a defendant shows up in court on their appointed date, the bail is refunded, and it can be used for someone else. This is partly why the app’s creators decided to use it for bail, as opposed to other projects.

Approximately 450,000 people who have not yet been convicted of a crime are held in pretrial detention every day in the United States. Many of them are there simply because they can’t afford to post cash bail. While in custody, many are in danger of losing their jobs, or custody of their children, trapping them in a system that perpetuates poverty. It particularly affects minorities, and increasingly, women. And it benefits private companies which charge non-refundable fees for posting bail bonds—the US is the only country in the world aside for the Philippines which commonly uses commercial bail bonds.

“Our impact is quantifiable,” said Grayson Earle, an artist and activist who originally came up with the idea of mining cryptocurrency for social change, and was one of the programmers for the app. “Even if we get a single person out on bail with this… it will have been worth it,” he told Quartz in an email.

You can adjust the Bail Bloc to use 50% of your computer’s power, but the default 10% setting should generate between $2 and $3 monthly per user. In New York, where the vast majority of misdemeanor defendants have their bail set at $1,000 or less—the app could have a substantial effect. According to The Bail Project, most people who are bailed out by donated funds appear in court on the appointed date.

Bail Bloc isn’t the only technological solution that helps raise funds for indigent defendants while the user carries out their daily tasks. A new app called “Appolition” aims to donate your spare change to bail relief. It’s modeled after spare change apps that help you save money without any effort. It’s tied to your bank account, and donates, for instance, the remaining 25 cents from your $3.75 coffee to bail relief.