'It's so wrong -- the fees and fines, the case overload'

A fair win for criminal justice reformer who takes top humanitarian award

Amy Bach snags the Charles Bronfman Prize for her work in founding Measures For Justice — a nonprofit that takes stock of America’s legal system

Reporter at The Times of Israel

Amy Bach, founder of Measure for Justice, and recent winner of the Charles Bronfman Prize. (Carlos Ortiz/Democrat & Chronicle)
Amy Bach, founder of Measure for Justice, and recent winner of the Charles Bronfman Prize. (Carlos Ortiz/Democrat & Chronicle)

NEW YORK — Sometimes Amy Bach likes to live stream Manhattan’s Central Synagogue text studies.

“It’s something I like to do. It’s like watching a TED talk. One time there was a talk about Jewish law. I remember it saying how one of the first jobs of a Jewish adult is to do justice. The second is to take care of your family. I thought to myself, ‘I’m in good shape,’” Bach said, speaking on the telephone from her home in Rochester, New York.

Good shape, indeed.

As president and executive director of Measures For Justice, the journalist and lawyer is now a criminal justice reformer. She founded MFJ, a non-profit, non-partisan organization, to bring transparency to a broken system so mired in byzantine-like bureaucracy it commits what she calls “ordinary injustice” daily.

For her work she was recently named the 2018 recipient of the Charles Bronfman Prize. The annual award of $100,000 goes to a humanitarian under 50 whose innovative work, informed by Jewish values, has significantly improved the world.

The Charles Bronfman Prize will issue a call for 2019 nominations beginning on November 1.

Charles Bronfman (photo credit: Courtesy)
Charles Bronfman speaking at a Taglit-Birthright event. (Courtesy)

“To do justice and have mercy are absolutely Jewish values. Amy is doing great work to reform the incarceration system, which is rotting. A lot of us know about the problems of poverty and the lawyering the poor get — or don’t get,” Jewish philanthropist Charles Bronfman told The Times of Israel in a telephone interview.

The US leads the industrialized world in filling prisons. It has only five percent of the world’s total population, but nearly a quarter of the world’s prison population. However, its justice system lacks the fundamental data necessary to determine whether its large earmarked budget is actually reducing crime, improving fairness, or even lessening the number of repeat offenders, according to MFJ.

Stories about metrics aren’t sexy or sensational. Metrics, though, might just be the key to help unlock the door to criminal justice system reform.

“Metrics offers a mirror for people who work in the system. Those inside the system are generally unable to see their own errors, much less confront them. This blindness is a signature feature of ordinary injustice,” Bach wrote in her 2011 book “Ordinary Injustice: How America Holds Court.”

MFJ collects, analyzes and compares national data to help those entrenched in the system see their blind spots. It looks at who’s in jail, for how long, and for what crimes, and compares the results across counties.

Measures for Justice founder Amy Bach, left, at The Atlantic Conference. (Courtesy)

Bach’s interest in criminal justice reform started during the year she was clerking for Judge Rosemary Barkett, who served as a circuit judge on the United States Court of appeals for the Eleventh Circuit. The circuit covers Florida, Alabama and Georgia.

During that time, Bach wrote a story on voting rights that ran in The Nation that was “picked up everywhere. Even People Magazine,” Bach said. After that she spent a year writing about civil rights for The Nation.

Bach recalled one of her first days as a court observer. As she walked up the green-carpeted stairs, she noticed the defense attorney standing in the middle of a throng of people. He was like a rock star surrounded by groupies, she said — only the crowd was made up of his clients, and they were just trying to get a minute or two of his time.

Inside the courtroom it was so loud the judge had to be asked to speak up so people could hear the proceedings, Bach said.

“I remember thinking this is so wrong — the fees and fines, the overload of cases. I remember there was this woman who didn’t have a car, she owed thousands of dollars in court fees. No way this woman in this teeny tiny trailer was going to pay her fees. But nobody could see it,” she said.

Bach said she soon realized that no matter how well-intentioned prosecutors, judges, and defense attorneys may be, they have become so inured to patterns of injustice they no longer see them.

Amy Bach, founder of Measure for Justice. (Carlos Ortiz/Democrat & Chronicle)

“You go into a court and you think they are taking note of things; they’re not. We don’t know who is in court, who is getting a break and who is not. You can send a FedEx package and there are all sorts of way to keep track of your package through the system,” said Bach.

“We in society measure everything; we measure health, we measure real estate. But are you safe? Are we fair? Why haven’t we addressed this? We need a different approach. We need to clean up our data,” she said.

MFJ recently released 380 counties in six states’ worth of data online that can be broken down by race and ethnicity, sex, indigent status and age.  There is data on the number of cases not prosecuted and the median number of days between arrest and initial appearance in court. There is also information on the number of guilty pleas without an attorney present in both misdemeanor cases and felony cases.

MFJ is on its way to measuring all 50 states. It will have 20 states by 2020.

Dan Meridor, former deputy prime minister and justice minister in Israel — also a Bronfman Prize judge — said in a statement that Bach’s work has helped correct mistakes made in the justice system.

Bronfman said he hopes and expects that Bach will continue her work in criminal justice reform.

“One of the fascinating things about this award is that we award the prize to people under 50. It goes to people on the way up. It’s not a lifetime achievement award. The people who have received it go on to do many more things,” Bronfman said.

The other reason MFJ works is because it is apolitical, Bach said. Simply put, it focuses on three things: public safety, fiscal responsibility and fairness. It doesn’t prescribe change; rather it simply presents data to interested parties and lets them decide how to proceed.

An illustrative photo of a prison. (Photo credit: YouTube screen capture)

For example, after MFJ approached a prosecutor in Winnebago County, Wisconsin, with data, he noticed the poverty-struck failed to pay low bail at a much higher rate than wealthier people. While this might seem intuitive, it took MFJ metrics for the prosecutor to realize poor people were being detained simply because they didn’t have money — not because they were a flight risk or because they were endangering public safety.

Once he saw that information, the prosecutor decided indigent defendants who were jailed for failing to pay low bail didn’t need a prosecutor to present their probable cause hearings over the weekend or holidays. That meant judges were able to free these defendants much earlier. The result is that the county treats defendants more equitably, while also saving money, according to MFJ.

“The way you treat the vulnerable in society is how that society will be judged. Prison impacts some of the most disadvantaged,” said Justice Rosalie Silberman Abella of the Supreme Court of Canada, on behalf of the Bronfman Prize’s international panel of judges.

“Amy’s initiatives go toward taking care of people who can’t take care of themselves, addressing universal issues of poverty, race, indigenous populations, the undereducated,” she said.

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