For the nearly 8,000 people locked up in Cook County jail, and the 2,400 on house arrest, the presumption of innocence until proven guilty effectively does not exist. Roughly 95 percent of those incarcerated have not faced trial or conviction of any kind, the vast majority of them ensnared simply because they are unable to afford bond. Those forced to languish in indefinite detention are disproportionately African American, and their pretrial punishments can permanently set their lives off-course, causing them to lose jobs, custody of their children, their housing, and even their lives.
Now, a group of formerly incarcerated people, movement lawyers and concerned community members in Chicago are seeking to intervene in this humanitarian crisis by pooling collective resources to free people from Cook County jail. Calling themselves the Chicago Community Bond Fund (CCBF), the all-volunteer group just announced it has freed 50 people from jail or house arrest, using a revolving fund.
But the organization is not just aiming to buy the liberty of those locked up—a transaction they acknowledge is chilling. Members want to change the system by organizing to eradicate monetary bond altogether and address the harms that Cook County inflicts on its own residents. “You are supposed to be innocent until proven guilty, but they treat everyone guilty until proven innocent,” Tyler Smith, a 21-year-old Chicago resident bonded out by the CCBF in February, told AlterNet.
Amid mounting nationwide concern about mass incarceration, the CCBF is advancing a strategy of harm reduction and resistance that appears to be catching fire, with related projects established in Massachusetts, New York, California, North Carolina and beyond. In a country that remains, by far, the biggest jailer in the world, organizers hope that similar bond funds can comprise one prong in a broad strategy to end the injustices perpetrated by prison and jail systems across the United States.
“If we are really serious about the presumption of innocence, which is not a radical concept, then we need to take a critical look at cash bond and pretrial detention across the board,” Max Suchan, a co-founder of CCBF, told AlterNet. “The solution is to end cash bond and eliminate pretrial detention.”
‘My life was ruined’
While the monetary bond system remains, Smith said he is glad the CCBF exists. “It had a good impact,” he said of the organization. “It brought me hope.”
Smith has been working since he was 15, and said he comes from a “single-parent household, with a mother who has been working hard since I was born.” He described himself as “head of household” since he was 19.
“My whole situation started on July 15, 2013, when I was accused of robbery,” said Smith. Unable to pay $2,500—10 percent of his $25,000 deposit bond—he was forcibly subjected to electronic monitoring, a form of house arrest, in July 2016. Smith was working two jobs at the time, but lost both as a result of restrictions on his movement and invasive surveillance. He was living with his mother, who was unemployed, and says as a result of his incarceration the family was almost evicted from their home. “My life was ruined,” said Smith. “There was nothing I could do.”
After being referred by his public defender, Smith was bonded out by the CCBF in February and has since become a vocal organizer against the injustices he endured, testifying at a November public hearing on the use of money bond in Cook County. He said that through the CCBF, he has gained important community he describes as “friends and family.” He added that “after the situation, it’s like the stress has been lifted from my mom.”
Yet Smith also said that his life has been unfairly derailed by what he has suffered so far. While his charges were dropped last Friday, Smith and his family have already faced staggering punishment, he notes. In light of this ordeal, he emphasized that it is important for those who have not experienced incarceration firsthand to “hear my voice and what I have to say.”
“To make things better in the justice system, they have to eliminate bond and house arrest,” said Smith.
For many, the harms inflicted during pretrial detention are irreversible. “Inability to pay bond results in higher rates of conviction, longer sentences, loss of housing and jobs, separation of families and lost custody of children,” notes the CCBF in its first annual report.
It is far more difficult for individuals to fight their cases while incarcerated, and after sitting in indefinite detention, many experience pressure to plead guilty. In Cook County alone, people arrested on “nonviolent” felonies who were unable to post bail were four times as likely to receive convictions as their counterparts who were able to avoid pretrial detention, according to research included in a class action lawsuit.
Especially for those who already experience poverty or marginalization, even just a few days in jail can permanently disrupt jobs and family connections, a reality underscored by the Pretrial Justice Institute’s “Three Days Count” campaign.
Diomar, who was formerly incarcerated in Cook County jail, says it was only because he was bonded out by CCBF that he was able to “be free to see the birth of my daughter and support my family.”
“Bond is fundamentally unfair because it punishes poor people more—and it’s not just you that suffers, but also your entire family,” he said in a press statement. “They lock you away from your kids, and that really sets the tone for the case and puts you at a disadvantage from the very beginning. You can’t fight your case as well from a legal or emotional standpoint from the inside.”
Some do not survive their ordeals. According to a report by the Huffington Post, 815 people “died in jails and police lockups in the year following Sandra Bland’s death on July 13, 2015.” Their data shows that many of those who lost their lives were incarcerated because they were unable to meet bond requirements. The tally is a dramatic undercount, as it does not include people who die following release due to incarcerated-related causes.
The long-term impacts of jailing are tragically illustrated by the case of Kalief Browder, who in 2010 was arrested at the age of 16 and spent more than 1,000 days locked up at Rikers Island waiting for a trial that never happened. He was forced to remain incarcerated because his family could not afford to post bail. During this time he endured roughly two years in solitary confinement, as well as a violent assault by an officer. Following his release, Browder committed suicide in 2015.
“He tried to lead a normal life but after being beaten, starved, being in solitary confinement for so long, that would take a toll on a grown man, let alone a child,” Venida Browder, Kalief’s mother, told the New York Daily News six months after her son’s death. She died just over a year after her son took his life.
‘No more business-as-usual’
Pretrial detention, like that which Browder was forced to endure, is a key driver of soaring jail populations across the United States. According to a report released in February 2015 by the Vera Institute, annual admissions to jails jumped from 6 million in 1983 to 11.7 million in 2013. Meanwhile, those incarcerated in jails are languishing longer, with the average stay climbing from 14 to 23 days over the past 30 years. People of color are disproportionately impacted by these trends. The Vera Institute finds that African Americans, who make up just 13 percent of the U.S. population, are jailed at four times the rate of their white counterparts.
As in Cook County, the vast majority of people locked up in jails across the country have not been convicted of any crime and are ostensibly assumed innocent. The Department of Justice estimated in 2014 that, at any given time, roughly 450,000 people are incarcerated in jails awaiting trial, amounting to two-thirds of the jail population. A special report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, released in 2007, shows that five out of six of those locked up “had bail set with financial conditions required for release that were not met.” According to the Vera report, three-fifths of all people locked up in jail are “awaiting trial or resolution of their cases through through plea negotiation, and simply too poor to post even low bail.”
The spike in jail populations nationwide tracks directly with increased reliance on ever-more-expensive bail. In a 2012 report, the Justice Policy Institute notes that, “From 1992 to 2006, the use of financial release, primarily through commercial bonds, increased by 32 percent.” Meanwhile, the report observes that average bail amounts have increased “by over $30,000 between 1992 and 2006.”
Bail itself reflects the racism of the broader prison-industrial complex. According to figures released by the Pretrial Justice Institute last year, African American men face 35 percent higher bonds than white men nationwide. Meanwhile, monetary bail systems by definition discriminate against those members of society who are least able to pay, in a society with profound class disparities along race lines. The Pew Research Center determined in 2014 that the current wealth gap between white and black people in the United States is at its highest point since 1989, with white homes possessing 13 times the median wealth of their black counterparts in 2013.
Even the Department of Justice submitted a friend-of-the-court brief in August arguing that incarcerating people because they are unable to pay bail violates the U.S. constitution. Yet despite the public airing of concerns, the system continues unabated, with rare exceptions. In contrast to most state and local jurisdictions in the United States, Washington D.C. releases roughly 90 percent of people held overnight, without requiring monetary bail.
Peter Goldberg, executive director of the Brooklyn Bail Fund, told AlterNet over the phone, “The goal of a bond fund is certainly not to prop up an unfair system with money, but to disrupt and change it. In addition to the obvious harm reduction that a fund can provide by getting people out of jail, we work in tandem with others in the movement to abolish cash bail. Funds must bring to light the experiences of individuals, allow them to have voice in what reform looks like. No more business-as-usual.”
‘There hasn’t been a change’
In light of these injustices, Chicago-area activists and lawyers are organizing a coordinated fightback. Currently and formerly incarcerated people filed a class-action lawsuit against Cook County officials in October, in partnership with the CCBF and lawyers’ groups, including the Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center.
“Every day, thousands of human beings in Cook County, each presumed innocent as a matter of law, remain in jail for the duration of their case simply because they cannot afford to pay a monetary amount set without relation to their ability to pay,” states the complaint, which was emailed to AlterNet. “The large and disproportionate majority of these persons are African Americans.”
According to 2011-2013 data from the Clerk of the Circuit Court of County, analyzed by the MacArthur Justice Center, these disparities are stark. For example, only 15.8 percent of African Americans charged with Class 4 felonies were released on bond before their trials, as compared to 32.4% of non-African American defendants.
Cook County Sheriff Thomas Dart, who is named as a defendant in the lawsuit, has stated publicly he believes the money bail system is unfair. Cara Smith, chief policy officer for Dart, told AlterNet that the sheriff “has been lobbying to eliminate cash bond in Illinois.”
But campaigners say they are exasperated by the endless talk about the problems while the policies remain the same. “The reason Sheriff Dart is named in the lawsuit is because his office is incarcerating these people after the bond is set,” Alexa Van Brunt of MacArthur Justice Center told AlterNet. “He is the custodian of the people who are being held based on these judicial bail orders, which we believe are unconstitutional. There has been a lot of discussion about the problem of cash bail in Cook County. It’s an issue that has been on everyone’s radar for some time. But there hasn’t been a change.”
Building a movement
While the monetary system persists, people across the country are taking direct action to remove people from its clutches. “We’re first and foremost interested in keeping clients out of jail,” Brett Davidson, the director of the Connecticut Bail Fund, told AlterNet over the phone. “It’s ridiculous that we’re even able to buy people’s freedom, that money is the thing standing between people and jail.”
The CCBF, which combines harm reduction with social movement support, emerged from a call to address grave injustices committed by the Chicago Police Department. In August 2014, police killed two black men, one of whom was 17-year-old Desean Pittman. When Pittman’s friends and family held a community vigil shortly following the killing, they were attacked by police who “ripped down memorial photos and tipped over candles,” said Suchan. After the incident was over, five people were charged with felonies, including Pittman’s mother, and four could not afford bond.
Just back from Ferguson, Suchan says he “made contact with family members who were doing their own fundraising. Ultimately we had to raise around $30,000 to get everyone out of jail. It took four months. We were doing fish fries and game nights, as well as crowdfunding online campaigns.” That effort launched conversations about what it would look like to create a more sustainable fund.
“We decided to form this group so that we could reach out to those who couldn’t help themselves, and we are very proud of what we’re doing,” co-founder Jeanette Wince said at a launch party in November 2015. Since the launch, the organization says it has posted “over $278,000 in bonds ranging from $500 to $50,000, spending the vast majority of this sum on felony bonds.” Not a single bond has been forfeited, and many of those released have since become active with the organization.
To this day, CCBF martials resources to support individuals, as well as the Black Lives Matter movement, with roughly a quarter of the people bonded out engaged in a political action at the time of their arrest. Support of people doing activist work “directly advances our mission of supporting movements seeking systemic change in Chicago,” the group says in their annual report. “Bond funds are a really important, humanizing tool, but they are really only a way forward if they are connected and accountable to larger movements for justice and decarceration,” Sharlyn Grace, CCBF co-founder, told AlterNet.
James Kilgore, author of the book Understanding Mass Incarceration, told AlterNet that bail funds “raise the issue of the injustice of bail and put the issue of abolishing cash bail onto the agenda. That is an important step in decarceration.”
However, individuals don’t have to have ties to such social movements to be deemed worthy of support. The CCBF has developed detailed criteria that weighs factors including “inability to pay,” “risk of victimization in jail” and “special health needs.”
“Many times, when there are public conversations about bail reform, they move forward by dividing people into categories of worthy and unworthy,” Grace emphasized. “We’re not a guilt or innocence-based organization. We think of everyone as being harmed in the jail. We are not going to say we are only bailing out people who face ‘nonviolent’ charges or drug charges. Fundamentally, keeping people in cages is not how we want to respond to harm in our communities.”