BY JENNA JARDINE Running down the steps of Canal Street station, you hurry to catch the six train to get to work on time. You swipe your monthly unlimited metro pass only to receive the dreaded “swipe again at this turnstile” message. Your train pulls into the station and desperate you slip over the turnstile to catch it. Instead a nearby police officer catches you. In your frazzled state you protest, insisting that with your unlimited Metro pass there is no need to swipe anyway. After making quite a scene in the subway station, you are charged with resisting arrest and jumping a turnstile.

A few days later you’re in the New York County Criminal Courts. Bang! Bang! Bang! The judge drops the gavel and your bail is set at $2,000 for resisting arrest and $1 for jumping the turnstile. A bond service can be used to pay the $2,000, but not the $1. Who ya gonna call? The Dollar Bail Brigade.

This New York-based volunteer program works to pay off those dollar charges, getting people out of jail, and exposing injustices and inefficiencies in the bail process. The Dollar Bail Brigade serves up small-scale aid toward the larger goal of criminal justice reform by sending volunteers to pay $1 bails and collecting data on their experiences to use in protesting the system. The ambitious project’s director is Amanda Lawson, 19,  an NYU sophomore from Houston, Texas, whose passion for criminal justice activism stems from personal experience.

“I became passionate about these issues when I went to Bronx Criminal Court arraignments,” Lawson said. “I remember just sitting there and watching all these people of color come in. Seeing their bodies filing through the system was just crazy.”

Sitting in the courtroom only a few blocks from Yankee Stadium months later, her early naiveté is gone. Her brow furrows beneath a mane of ombre hair as she watches a black man enter in handcuffs, the eight man of color that morning. The room is filled with sounds of rustling papers, harsh clicks from the court stenographer’s typing, and hushed whispers from client to public defender. Lawson sits cross-legged, hands folded in her lap, as the charges are read, listening closely. As they finish she purses her lips, leaning over, “He’ll get a dollar bail for sure,” she says with a shake of her head. Dismay with the system is clearly visible on her face as she witnesses yet another person given a $1 bail charge simply for the system to keep track. Judges congratulate themselves on the kindness of using dollar bails, since when seeing someone with more than one charge, they give the lesser charge only a dollar bail instead of its highest option. Lawson describes the process as a record-keeping disaster, since the system doesn’t allow a bail of zero judges give $1 charges instead. “This is seriously an issue that could be solved with a two-column excel spreadsheet,” she said.

In New York City, criminal justice activism is gaining traction. The long-fought effort to close Rikers Island succeeded on March 31 when Mayor Bill de Blasio vowed to close the complex in favor of opening smaller jails across the city. The ‘Raise the Age’ campaign also saw a glimmer of hope when Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed the initiative into law on April 10, drastically changing the way 16- and 17-year-old defendants are treated by the system. The Dollar Bail Brigade takes part in these larger campaigns through their focused efforts with tangible results—and is using millennials to do it.

The innovation and dedication in the field of activism coming from millennials, patterns the long history of young people changing the face of activism. “Students tend to be young and idealistic,” said Robert Cohen, an NYU Professor of History and Social Studies Education, who teaches a class on student activism throughout history. “They have more time and energy than their elders, so they can use that energy to fuel movements even without much money.”

Gerard O’Donoghue, an NYU Language Lecturer and Residential College Faculty Affiliate, is Dollar Bail Brigade volunteer who agrees. He points to the focused and straightforward efforts as a token of the group’s success. “It offers a concrete, achievable strategy to redress the injustice of the bail trap, one person at a time,” O’Donoghue said. “Whenever there is a systemic problem, you tend to find people inventing strategic, pragmatic methods of resistance.”

Lawson started the organization in January, along with fellow NYU student Matthew Perry, with the ultimate goal of  criminal justice reform. Their work is two-fold: releasing people from jail in the short term while combating larger issues in the criminal justice system like outdated technology, cash bail, and inefficient recordkeeping. With lots of energy and a bit of support Lawson has amassed 130 volunteers and helped 15 people get out of jail, in only four months. On any given day Lawson has around five volunteers at the ready to answer her call, head to a jail location and wade through the red-tape of bailing someone out.

Morgan Sperry, 21, an NYU junior from Hamilton, Massachusetts, holds the record for the longest bail time of any Dollar Bail Brigade volunteer—26 hours. Sperry traveled back and forth multiple times between 1:30 p.m. one day until 2 p.m. the next day to bail one person out of the Manhattan Detention Center. She filled the paperwork out twice, having been told the copy from the day before had been purged, only to find out later that it was sitting in the fax machine all along, leaving a disabled man in Rikers overnight all because someone forgot to check the fax machine. “It’s an incredible and sobering thing to go to a jail and walk out a few hours later, hopefully not 26, with a receipt that says you’ve bailed someone out,” Sperry said.

The frustrating experience may have deterred some, but not Sperry, who has bailed out two people already and is still on the volunteer list. “Engaging in the bail process humanizes the issue, which establishes a personal connection and drives my passion,” Sperry said. “When you actually go and fill out the forms, the abstraction of ‘jail’ transforms into a tangible place filled with real people.”

Sperry, who engages in other forms of activism such as protests, says the accessibility and high-impact of Dollar Bail Brigade keeps her coming back. “While being a body in a crowd is cathartic, my experiences at the jail feel much more impactful,” Sperry said. “To ‘march around and make a fuss’ as my grandma would say, is great, but to show up at a jail and say ‘Hi, I’m here to use my privilege to actually pull someone out of here’ makes as much or more of an impact.”

Lawson believes the immediacy and grassroots nature of Dollar Bail Brigade is crucial for engaging young people. The commonsense approach draws young people to the cause, in stark contrast to the intricacy and absurdity of the criminal justice system. “Our organization gives students the chance to get their feet wet with social justice,” Lawson said. “It becomes less of an action and more of a duty.  It’s just knowing that if you are able to give your time, energy, money, then you should.”