CHICAGO — Activists who say too many poor people are unfairly languishing in U.S. jails because they can’t afford to post cash bail are increasingly deploying a new tactic: Bailing out strangers.
Community groups are collecting donations from individuals, churches, cities and other organizations in more than a dozen cities, including New York, Chicago, Seattle and Nashville, to bail out indigent prisoners. Though many bail funds are still in their infancy, they’ve freed several thousand people in the last few years, and the number is growing.
So far, the overwhelming majority of defendants still show up for court even when they have no money on the line, according to the groups. Once free, the defendants are better able to fight their case, often leading to charges being dropped or reduced.
“Many, many people are having their lives ruined pre-trial because they can’t afford to get out of jail,” said Max Suchan, who co-founded the Chicago Community Bond Fund, which had bailed out 50 people as of December.
The bail funds are a step toward a larger goal for some legal reform activists: abolishing the cash bail system. Advocates say it creates two unequal tiers of justice: one for people who can afford bail and one for people who can’t.
Lavette Mayes, 46, who was arrested for the first time after she got into a fight with her mother-in-law, spent more than a year in Cook County Jail unable to come up with $25,000 needed to get out.
The mother of two, who was in the midst of a divorce, said she “lost everything — my home, my car, my business, my credit,” before the Chicago bond fund offered to get her out.
“I called my attorney and said ‘Is this real?’ I said, ‘If they can do it, I promise I won’t jump the bail. I will do whatever they need me to do,’” Mayes recalled.
Mayes resolved her aggravated battery case a few months later and was sentenced to one day in prison, with credit for the 571 days already served.
As the broader bail reform issue has received more attention in recent years — in part due to events such as the death of Sandra Bland, a black woman who died in a Texas jail cell after a traffic stop while waiting help posting bail — opposition has come from bail bondsmen, who charge fees to post a bail bond on someone’s behalf, and some law enforcement officials.
Beth Chapman, president of the Professional Bail Agents of the United States and the star along with her husband of television’s “Dog the Bounty Hunter,” said the community groups mean well but don’t have the resources or expertise to ensure that freed prisoners don’t abscond or re-offend.
“They’re not licensed or trained to deal with the criminal element,” Chapman said. “They’re going to get burned.”
The bail agents organization also argues that eliminating the cash bail system would put the public at risk. With few exceptions, Chapman said, “People are not in jail because they are poor. They’re in jail because they broke the law.”
Some local authorities oppose it because bonds forfeited by people who don’t show up to court provide a revenue stream for counties.
But one of the biggest barriers to change is simply “history and practice,” said Peter Goldberg, who leads the Brooklyn Community Bail Fund.
“We’ve been doing this for so long to one degree or another that it’s just the way the system works,” he said.
Some groups, including the Brooklyn fund and one in the Bronx, will only post for people charged with misdemeanors and who are in jail because they cannot afford a bail of $2,000 or less.
Each year more than 10,000 cases in New York city fit those criteria, Goldberg said. Since May 2015, the Brooklyn fund has secured release for more than 1,300 of them. The group now serves 100 to 110 people per month with an average bail paid of $910. Goldberg said 95 percent have returned for all court dates.
In Chicago the anti-cash bail movement has a seemingly unlikely ally in Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart. He argues the cash system should be abolished and replaced with more thorough background checks; if a person is considered dangerous, they stay in jail and if they’re not, they go free, with access to services such as drug-addiction counseling if needed.
As of last week, there were more than 1,100 inmates at Cook County jail — or about 15 percent of the roughly 7,500 total jail population — who needed to post bail of $5,000 or less to be released. Of those, almost 300 needed $1,000 or less, county officials said. Housing each of those people costs the county a minimum of $150 per day.
Jocelyn Simonson, an assistant professor at Brooklyn Law School, wrote an article on bail funds that will appear in the Michigan Law Review in March.
When she started her research four years ago she said there were three or four funds operating nationwide. There will be 15 to 20 by the end of this year, and “they have not plateaued,” Simonson said.
She says the funds give communities — particularly minority communities — a way to push back against a system that disproportionately punishes them, and it goes beyond getting some people out of jail.
“They’re not just freeing individuals,” Simonson said. “They’re making a statement about the fairness of the criminal justice system.”