Faces of Bail Reform
On any given day, our criminal legal system cages nearly half a million people in pretrial detention, many of whom are there only because they’re too poor to pay bail. Robert Kennedy, back in 1964, decried the inherent cruelties of cash bail and how it had become a “vehicle for systematic injustice,” needlessly separating families, criminalizing poverty, and disproportionately harming people of color.
These perverse injustices have only grown worse as the coronavirus devastates the country’s prisons and jails, putting incarcerated people as well as jail staff and surrounding communities at tremendous risk.
Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights, in partnership with Colin Kaepernick’s Know Your Rights Camp, has committed $1 million to support local bail funds and community organizers in their work to free people from jails—a mission that has become even more urgent during the pandemic.
We spoke with representatives from some of the bail funds serving on the front lines, as well as one of the people we’ve released through our Funds for Freedom partnership, to hear more about how the pandemic has compounded the human toll of our wealth-based criminal legal system.
Videos produced by Michael Werner. These interviews have been edited for clarity and length.
Money bail is a system that requires people to pay a certain amount of money while they’re awaiting trial. And if they can’t come up with that money, then they wait in jail. And sometimes that can be weeks or months and sometimes that can be years.
It creates one system for people who can afford to pay it and get out, and a second category of people who are disproportionately Black and Brown who are forced to wait in jail for an indefinite amount of time.
They are presumed innocent, they have not been convicted of anything, and many of them will never be convicted of anything.
It’s supposed to be very hard for the government to take away our freedom when we haven’t been convicted of something. The majority of people in county jails around the United States are there while awaiting trial. And the overwhelming majority of those people, almost half a million, are there because they can’t afford to pay a money bond.
We can release so many people who are currently in jail. And when we do that, not only does nothing bad happen, but that we’re better off for it as people can rebuild their lives in community.
WE NEED TO ACT NOW
It hasn’t been treated as if we are in a global pandemic and people are dying every day. It is definitely, in New Orleans, business as usual as it relates to bail. People are still being arrested every day for petty crimes that they could very well receive citations for.
Every day somebody walks in there for a misdemeanor charge or a petty theft or an old warrant. Why would anybody be arrested for a warrant under a global pandemic? You couldn’t go to court and settle it right now anyway. So you take me from my safe home, where I’m able to be there with my family, and put me inside a prison where I’m locked in. They did not have to be in jail. They could have been out in society waiting for their cases to run through the courts. Every day you bring somebody in there, you put another person at risk.
The time is now; we need to act now. We need to get folks out of there now, like we can talk about the logistics later. Right now we need to move and get folks out of jail.
YOU FEEL LIKE YOU CAN’T PROTECT YOURSELF
I was in the county jail 19 months. After this virus hit, everything got a little aggressive. There’s a lot going on that people don’t even understand, don’t know about. But I really want them to know what’s happening in there; that what they’re portraying on TV, they’re not doing. They ain’t putting no sanitizer in there. They’re not putting no Clorox or sanitizer wipes or extra soap; that’s not happening. And it’s impossible to be socially distanced when you’ve got 48 men in a small gym room like … You ain’t nothing but like two, three feet apart even when you sleep. It’s like sleeping in the bathroom with another man.
We tried to make masks out of T-shirts. But when the officers, supervisor officers like the sergeants and the lieutenant came around, they’d take them or make us take them off.
You feel like you can’t protect yourself.
You’re gonna get it in there, ain’t no doubt about that. You just gotta pray and hope God gave you a strong enough immune system to fight it off.
IT’S UNNATURAL TO BE PLACED IN A CAGE
It’s unnatural to be placed in a cage. That individual could lose his or her job, become houseless, homeless. That person could lose his or her children if they do not make it back because the Department of Human Services goes into a person’s house and takes their kids. That person could be forced to plead guilty to something that they’re not guilty of.
For so long, the criminal legal system has been a bully to small people with no money. The bail funds are really justice mechanisms that allow for a person, usually of color who is poor, to be rescued from the criminal injustice system.
We represent a voice for people who aren’t listened to. And when you have a bail fund that can go and extract someone’s body out of a jail because money isn’t the issue, it doesn’t necessarily even the odds, but it says to the system that you just can’t snatch this body from this community, extract the wealth from this community, and expect that people aren’t going to push back. And so bail funds are pushing back.
Read more about our Funds for Freedom work:
- The Baton Rouge Advocate: “Advocates post bond for 20 inmates in Baton Rouge jail amid coronavirus concerns”
- Black Enterprise: “Colin Kaepernick partners with Kennedy organization to bail people out of jail”
- CBS News: “Activists are rushing to pay bail for inmates amid coronavirus threat”
- The Daily Memphian: “Exclusive: COVID threat triggers jail bailouts”
- Detroit Free Press: “How nonprofits are getting people out of metro Detroit jails during COVID-19 pandemic”
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