By Sam Corey, contributing journalist
At this moment, hundreds of thousands of people around the country sit in a jail cell, stripped of their freedom. While they are no longer able to vote, pay their taxes, or engage in public protest, they are not guilty of any crime – they are just poor. Individuals like this have fallen victim to an aspect of the criminal justice system that has been criticized by former Attorney General Eric Holder, the International Association of Chiefs Police and the American Bar Association. What’s keeping them locked up? They don’t have the ability to make their bond.
The cash bail system is one of the bluntest instruments made available to judges and prosecutors to keep poor people in jail. On any given day, kids are left unsupervised, home and car payments are left unpaid, and job loss takes place not because individuals are negligent or lazy, but because they are locked away from their lives outside jail. Last week, Detroit activists came up with a partial solution to this problem: establish a charitable bail fund to release mothers’ detained pretrial by Mother’s Day.
Organizing a bail fund
The Church of the Messiah, where these Detroit area organizers convened, sits just off East Lafayette, about two blocks from Belle Isle. Although the church is historic – about 142 years-old – it is very much vibrant and intact. About 60 percent of its congregation is African American men under the age of 30, and most of the church’s work includes providing affordable housing, nutrition and aerobic classes, serving food to the elderly, and maintaining after-school programs.
The spacious basement of the church is strewn with tables, and has high ceilings and windows that creep just into view. Here, I met the organizer of the Mother’s Day Bailout, Nick Buckingham, who sports a wide smile and a thin mustache. Nick, a Mass Liberation organizer for the Mass Liberation Campaign with Michigan United, hopes to cut mass incarceration in half by 2030.
“Over the next four years 2018-2021, we will develop the permanent grassroots organizing infrastructure that augments the overall movement to end mass incarceration and achieve this 50% reduction by 2030.”
For Buckingham, the creation of a bail fund is not some abstract goal. Having been formerly incarcerated, he knows what it’s like to be detained in jail before having a fair trial in court, and wants to prevent that for others.
“I remember sitting in the Ingham county jail, immersed in a violent, harmful place with the expectation to keep a humane, sane mindset and fight my case. During my time in the county jail, I would witness fights and correction officers’ (deputies’) misconduct which ultimately placed the incarcerated individual at risk of creating more trouble for their case.”
At the first convening to form a bail fund, organizers hailed from several activist organizations like Black Youth Project 100, Michigan United, The Color of Change, Good Jobs Now, and one individual running for office in Washtenaw County. They discussed their grievances with the criminal justice system, and the most optimal path towards creating a successful bail fund.
While new to Detroit, bail funds – especially on Mother’s Day – are not novel. Last year, Black Lives Matter helped raise over $500,000, and bail out mothers from across 20 different cities. More consistent bail fund non-profits have become even more popular.
According to the Marshal Project, funds raised to helped poor individuals get released from pretrial detention have arisen in Boston, Brooklyn, Nashville, and Seattle, and more bail funds are beginning to take root in St. Louis, Miami, Cincinnati, Oakland, Philadelphia, and Austin.
The Bronx Freedom Fund, a non-profit bail fund in New York City, has already helped 600 people stay out of jail in 2017 with their charitable fundraising, according to their website. That organization morphed into the Bail Project, a nationally scaled bail fund with the mission of bailing out thousands of individuals’ detained pretrial around the country in the next five years.
Given the numbers of those incarcerated pretrial, it’s surprising a bail fund hasn’t been suggested in Michigan before.
According to an investigative report by Bridge Magazine, about 41 percent of Michiganders in jail are awaiting trial. Some of the more egregious counties include Newaygo, Genesee, and Ottawa, where some odd 78 percent, 72 percent, and 60 percent, respectively, are in jail awaiting their trial or arraignment. While there has been no pretrial data made available by Wayne, Oakland, and Macomb counties, some in the area are advocating against money bail.
Barb Hankey, Oakland County Community Corrections Manager, is vocal about the injustice that money bail provides for community members, and that it serves no purpose.
“If you’re dangerous and you pose a threat to society, you’re dangerous and society should be able to assume that you’re going to be detained. No amount of money should be able to effectuate your release if you’re dangerous.”
An American Exception
Money bail is a problem particular to the United States, according to Hankey. “The United States and the Philippines are the only two countries in the whole entire world that use for-profit bail – doesn’t that seem kind of odd?”
Many have taken notice of money bail’s pernicious affect. It’s become common knowledge that America shares five percent of the world’s population, but 25 percent of the world’s incarcerated population, allowing the U.S. to lock up more people than any other nation on earth.
According to a 2018 report by the Prison Policy Initiative, 536,000 people in America are detained before having a trial – most of them remaining in local jails. That population of incarcerates is larger than most other country’s prison and jail populations combined.
The incarcerated population locked up for not being able to afford bail has skyrocketed just within the last 30 years. From 1983 until 2014, 99 percent of jail growth increase consisted of people that were legally innocent. This means that the vast majority of America’s increased jail population comes from those that have not yet been convicted of the crime they were charged with.
The massive rise of incarceration rates, according to Denzell McCampbell, the Deputy Communications Director for Engage Michigan and organizer for Black Youth Project 100-Detroit, is not a design flaw in the justice system but rather an integral lever that helps push the machine along.
“People say that the system is not working right now. I will say that it’s working the way it is designed to be and we need to get to a point that we are doing true restorative and transformational justice. I think this (bail fund) is a step in that direction.”
Who are the losers and winners?
It should be no surprise that money bail – one aspect of an incarceration machine that disproportionately locks up people of color – most significantly affects African Americans. (A recent Princeton study on racial bias and bail decisions found that when judges in Miami and Philadelphia decide on bail, they are significantly impacted by racial stereotypes and exaggerated fears of crimes by black defendants.)
Bishop Herman Starks, an organizer with Michigan United and the Michigan Peoples Campaign, has been a pastor most of his life, having been raised in the church. He spoke with me at the Church of the Messiah.
“It’s not fair. There needs to be a restructure of the system. (Bail) is just one part of it. Everyone needs to come to the mindset that the system is unfair toward people of color. Period. It wasn’t established for people of color because people of color had no say in the creation of it. They had no say in the creation of laws pertaining to it. We should not be the individuals being victimized by it – and guess what? We are.”
The disproportionate impact of money bail on people of color is hard to deny. A recent UCLA report found that, between 2012 and 2016, people in LAPD custody paid 193.8 million non-refundable dollars were paid to bail bond agents – of that sum, $92 million and $40.7 million were paid by Latinos and African Americans, respectively. Since women family members, and friends, of the accused pay the vast majority of bail bond funds, it’s fair to say that Black and Latina women have had to pay the bulk of such bond money.
Of course, all that money has to go somewhere. Ultimately, the criminalization of those locked up without ever being convicted of a crime – disproportionately poor, black individuals – can mean big business for others.
A 2017 report entitled Selling Off Our Freedom: How insurance corporations have taken over our bail system, bail companies receive big profits in America, generating about $14 billion each year. However, people are not only profiting off individuals incarcerated in America; large, foreign corporations have bought up bail insurers in order to maximize their profits overseas.
Tokio Marine, one of Japan’s largest corporations “owns multiple bail sureties and bought a wholesale bail agency in 2016.” And Fairfax Financial, a Toronto-based life insurance company, bought up “multiple bail insurers” and is now worth about $10 billion. These companies help bail bondsmen stay in business with publicly traded stocks bought with money that is used to temporarily free the innocently incarcerated.
“How can somebody going to jail make someone else rich?” Asked Bishop Starks. “You got a little boy of there around three years old,” he said pointing to the child. “They betting on the fact that he’s already going to prison. They already got a bed made for him.”
The future of money bail and a Detroit bail fund
Hankey, of Oakland Community Corrections, thinks that although cash bail has become a default setting in our criminal justice system, there’s no need to think it will last in Michigan forever.
“Most people in the pretrial field would say there’s no need for money bail at all. It should be totally eliminated.”
Michigan’s move toward reform does not exist in isolation. Pretrial reform, and the shift away from money bail, has already begun around the country in places like New Mexico, New Jersey, Washington DC, Kentucky, Illinois, and Alaska, and more recent reforms have occurred in cities like New Orleans, Philadelphia, and Atlanta.
“If we’re not going to eliminate money bail,” Hankey said, “then we need to make sure that we have restrictions around money bail and that people’s due process isn’t violated because if you can’t post a money bail, what does that mean? It means you’re detained. And our constitution – the Michigan constitution – says ‘only individuals who are charged with capital offenses can be detained.’
This week, Detroit organizers will meet again to hash out details that will help enact a bail fund. Questions like, how much money needs to be raised? Which jails should be targeted? And, who will follow up with families in order to make sure that detainees have the legal resources and social support they need?
McCampbell just hopes the bail fund will afford moms the ability to spend Mother’s Day with their family.
“I think we need to be making sure that we are getting folks back home to spend time with their family and having the opportunity to have mothers, and black women inside their homes and back in their community, where they should be, while they are dealing with things. And also providing the community a way that folks can have the support that they need. That’s the primary aspect for me.”
When a mother’s arrested, the first thing she thinks about is where her children are.This shouldn’t be the case. #FreeBlackMamas this Mother’s Day! Support the fight to #endmoneybail by donating here.
Sam Corey is a journalist who worked with the American Civil Liberties Union and will soon be interning at Michigan Public Radio’s current events show, Stateside with Cynthia Canty.