Why People Across the Country Are Raising Money to Bail Strangers Out of Jail

Victoria Law

Those who can afford to pay bail can go home to await their day in court. Those who cannot — approximately 450,000 people on any given day — stay behind bars. (sakhorn/shutterstock.com)

This arti­cle first appeared on Wag­ing Nonviolence.

The premise of Mari­ame Kaba’s idea, which she tweet­ed on New Year’s Eve with the hash­tag #FreeTheP­eo­ple, was sim­ple — donate the price of one drink to a local bail fund, orga­ni­za­tions that raise mon­ey and post bail for peo­ple who would oth­er­wise lan­guish in jail until their day in court.

Orga­niz­ers took up the call to #FreetheP­eo­ple. Chica­go orga­niz­er Kel­ly Hayes reached out to oth­ers to cre­ate memes to cir­cu­late and keep momen­tum going. She and Kaba also com­piled fact sheets about cash bail and its con­se­quences. We want­ed to use this as an oppor­tu­ni­ty for edu­ca­tion, not just to raise mon­ey,” Kaba explained.

Their efforts took off and, in one day, raised over $233,000 for at least 14 local bail funds across the coun­try. Hun­dreds of peo­ple par­tic­i­pat­ed, tweet­ing and retweet­ing the calls, cre­at­ing graph­ics for the event or tweet­ing the amount they donat­ed as a way to encour­age oth­ers to do the same. Some used the hash­tag to edu­cate about how cash bail works — and its dev­as­tat­ing con­se­quences. Those thou­sands of dol­lars are now enabling them to post bail for hun­dreds of people.

In court­rooms nation­wide, when a per­son first appears in court after arrest, the judge has the option of releas­ing them, jail­ing them until tri­al or set­ting bail. The rea­son­ing behind bail is not because the per­son is deemed a risk to them­selves or their com­mu­ni­ties. Instead, the rea­son­ing is based on mon­ey — by pay­ing a cer­tain amount, that per­son is more like­ly to return for sub­se­quent court dates. If they fail to show up, they for­feit that money.

In prac­tice, how­ev­er, bail sets up a two-tiered sys­tem for the 12 mil­lion peo­ple arrest­ed each year: those who can afford to pay bail can go home to await their day in court. Those who can­not — approx­i­mate­ly 450,000 peo­ple on any giv­en day — stay behind bars, mak­ing up two-thirds of the jail pop­u­la­tion.

In Mass­a­chu­setts, for exam­ple, between 77 and 88 per­cent of women remained in jails (and in the state prison’s over­crowd­ed Await­ing Tri­al Unit) because they and their fam­i­lies could not afford to post bail amounts of $2,000 or less. In New York City, approx­i­mate­ly 85 per­cent of peo­ple held at Rik­ers Island, the island-jail com­plex noto­ri­ous for its cul­ture of vio­lence, are still await­ing their day in court.

The con­se­quences of not being able to afford bail extend beyond days lost. Though tech­ni­cal­ly inno­cent until proven guilty, while wait­ing in jail, peo­ple often lose their jobs, homes, access to social ser­vices and child cus­tody. More­over, those lan­guish­ing behind bars are more like­ly to plead guilty as a way to escape the often-hell­ish con­di­tions of local jails. Peo­ple who refuse to plead guilty can spend years in jail and suf­fer tremen­dous vio­lence dur­ing that time.

Just look at Kalief Brow­der, the teenag­er who refused to plead guilty to steal­ing a back­pack and spent three years at Rik­ers Island, where he was assault­ed by both staff and oth­er teens. After three years, the pros­e­cu­tor final­ly dropped the charges, but the vio­lence and trau­ma he suf­fered at Rik­ers con­tin­ued to haunt him. Two years lat­er, he com­mit­ted sui­cide. Kalief’s sto­ry is only unusu­al in that it’s well-known; count­less oth­ers remain in sim­i­lar­ly hell­ish conditions.

The inequal­i­ties inher­ent in bail — and its role in enabling mass incar­cer­a­tion — have gained crit­i­cal atten­tion in recent years. In var­i­ous cities, orga­niz­ers have cre­at­ed bail funds, which are revolv­ing funds that post bail for those who can­not oth­er­wise afford free­dom. Once that person’s case is com­plet­ed, the courts return the mon­ey (minus any fees) and bail fund orga­niz­ers use it to buy some­one else’s freedom.

#FreetheP­eo­ple was the lat­est in sev­er­al mass fundrais­ers around bail in 2017. In the weeks lead­ing up to Mother’s Day, orga­niz­ers launched Mamas’ Bailout Day, rais­ing over $1 mil­lion to post bail for at least 106 black moth­ers in time for the hol­i­day. Their efforts weren’t lim­it­ed to peo­ple who were bio­log­i­cal moth­ers, but extend­ed those who were embraced as moth­er fig­ures by peo­ple in their com­mu­ni­ties. They also con­nect­edpeo­ple to sup­port ser­vices and resources to ensure that they can take care of them­selves and their fam­i­lies. For Father’s Day, Gay Pride, June­teenth and Black August, anoth­er 82 peo­ple were bailed out.

In Decem­ber, the Mass­a­chu­setts Bail Fund and Black Lives Mat­ter Cam­bridgelaunched a hol­i­day bailout. Each week, orga­niz­ers sat in court­rooms or vis­it­ed local jails to iden­ti­fy and post bail amounts of less than $500 for peo­ple who would oth­er­wise remain in jail. That month, they bailed out 78 peo­ple in the Boston area alone.

But buy­ing free­dom for 78 peo­ple isn’t cheap. Atara Rich-Shea of the Mass­a­chu­setts Bail Fund not­ed that, alto­geth­er, those bails cost $41,591 and cred­its a grant from Nation­al Bailout, a coali­tion of orga­ni­za­tions, for allow­ing them to post bail for 24 more peo­ple than they would have been able to oth­er­wise. In Mass­a­chu­setts, each bail is accom­pa­nied by a $40 fee, which is not refunded.

Among them was a preg­nant woman held in the state prison’s Await­ing Tri­al Unit. The orga­niz­er who post­ed her bail recount­ed that, before the two part­ed ways, the woman told her how scared she was for her and her baby’s safe­ty. And also how impos­si­ble it is to get prop­er sleep on a prison bed. She was so relieved to be out.”

In Con­necti­cut, orga­niz­ers with the Con­necti­cut Bail Fund and the Immi­grant Bail Fund also held a hol­i­day bailout, free­ing 29 peo­ple from local adult jails, youth deten­tion and immi­gra­tion deten­tion. The amounts that they post­ed var­ied wild­ly. Co-founder Brett David­son recalled post­ing a $50 bail for a man who did not have phone num­bers of friends or fam­i­ly who could post his bond; the fund also post­ed $5,000 for a woman arrest­ed for sex work. Con­necti­cut does not charge a fee for post­ing bail, so all of the mon­ey is even­tu­al­ly returned to each bail fund.

#FreetheP­eo­ple raised $26,060 for the Mass­a­chu­setts Bail Fund. Com­bined with a match­ing grant for funds raised in the last two weeks of Decem­ber, the Bail Fund now has $59,060, an amount that will allow them to free at least 100 peo­ple. #FreetheP­eo­ple raised $2,127 for the Con­necti­cut Bail Fund and anoth­er $4,312 for the Immi­grant Bail Fund. David­son not­ed that the lat­ter funds went towards a $10,000 immi­gra­tion bond in ear­ly January.

Bail fund orga­niz­ers are not only work­ing to free peo­ple from jail, but also fight­ing to end cash bail alto­geth­er. In some places, they are begin­ning to see results. Orga­niz­ers with the Chica­go Com­mu­ni­ty Bond Fund, of which Kaba is an advi­so­ry mem­ber, have pushed for court inter­ven­tions and worked with leg­is­la­tors on bills to change bail laws. In July 2017, in response to a law­suit, a judge issued Gen­er­al Order 18.A, a rule requir­ing that all bails in Chicago’s Cook Coun­ty must be afford­able. The order applies only to bails set after that deci­sion and orga­niz­ers have not­ed that not all judges have been adher­ing to the new rule. Nonethe­less, the Cook Coun­ty Jail has had 1,500 few­er pris­on­ers since the rul­ing took effect in September.

In Con­necti­cut, grass­roots orga­niz­ing has been slow­er. David­son notes efforts among pol­i­cy mak­ers to replace cash bail with risk assess­ment, which replaces one flawed sys­tem with anoth­er. Many of the peo­ple bailed out of local jails are hous­ing unsta­ble or home­less, thus mak­ing them more vul­ner­a­ble to police contact.

For us, it’s a chal­lenge to even start the con­ver­sa­tion about abo­li­tion and the cash bail sys­tem because most of the peo­ple we’re bond­ing out, it’s not a famil­iar con­cept,” he said. We’re try­ing to cre­ate a con­ver­sa­tion less about replac­ing the bail sys­tem with risk assess­ment and more about pre­tri­al decarcer­a­tion. That’s a longer process, to have those con­ver­sa­tions and do the nec­es­sary orga­niz­ing in the community.”

Peo­ple are orga­niz­ing and not just giv­ing their mon­ey in a char­i­ty way that actu­al­ly rein­forces the cur­rent sys­tem,” Kaba reflect­ed. It’s not just the actu­al bail­ing out, but the bail­ing out is super-impor­tant because, as we know, the cas­cad­ing effects on people’s lives can­not be under­es­ti­mat­ed or minimized.”

Vic­to­ria Law is a free­lance jour­nal­ist focus­ing on women’s incar­cer­a­tion. She is the author of Resis­tance Behind Bars: The Strug­gles of Incar­cer­at­ed Women (2012) and co-author of forth­com­ing Your Home Is Your Prison (New Press).
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