Community bail funds demonstrate the need for criminal justice reform through the recent overwhelming public support they have received, and the continued outdated, racist, and classist nature of cash bail policies. Ava DeSantis writes why we should abolish cash bail now.

The Minnesota Freedom Fund did not put out a public call for support. Within 48 hours of the fund being available online, however, it received thousands of donations. A few days later, overwhelmed with donations, the organizers of the fund pointed potential donors towards other community bail funds and Black Lives Matter activist groups.

Support for community bail funds spiked during the widespread protests in response to the murder of George Floyd at the hands of the police and steadily rose for the past five years, indicating growing opposition to cash bail policies. As Jocelyn Simonson wrote in her article, entitled Bail Nullification, “community groups and churches have long had a practice of passing a hat to collect funds to help people with bail and legal defense, but formal charitable bail funds—formed expressly for the purpose of posting bail—have taken off nationally only in the last five years.”

A Discriminatory Policy

For those arrested on suspected felony charges, the nationwide average bail is $10,000. 40% of American families, according to a recent study, would not have $400 on-hand in an emergency. These same families cannot be expected to pay $10,000 in bail. Cash bail policies are responsible for the majority of jail growth over the past 15 years, pressure the accused to plead guilty, make protest more difficult, and allow for the exploitative private bail bonds industry. The most unjust part of cash bail policies is that they only hurt working-class people and disproportionately affect Black and Brown Americans. The policy is fundamentally discriminatory.

Jean Chung, the author of Bailing on Baltimore, described the discriminatory nature of this policy. “It’s a system that disproportionately locks up low-income people and perpetuates the vicious cycles of poverty and incarceration in those communities. It’s a failure. It’s unfair.” The Bail Project estimates that Black and Brown people are 10-25% more likely than white people to be detained pretrial or have to pay money bail. This failure of policy is the reason for half a million lower and working-class people sit in jail, before being convicted of any crime.

It Is Harder To Protest

 Community bail funds first became necessary to protect protestors from cash bail policies. As demonstrated by the success of the Minnesota Freedom Fund, this is a productive way for supporters of a movement to protect their allies. The first community bail fund was created by the ACLU in 1920 to “[free] radicals, prosecuted under the sedition laws” of the First Red Scare. Activists would later create community bail funds to help anti-segregation activists and anti-Vietnam war protestors. The community bail fund is a tool to sidestep another issue with cash bail policies: they make sustained protests more difficult, an attack on free speech.

Increased Jail Population

Cash bail policies are responsible for 99% of American jail growth over the past 15 years. Incarcerating half a million non-convicted people is a large part of the reason for growth. The possibility of early release often offered in plea-bargains incentivizes the accused to plead guilty, regardless of guilt or evidence against them. The prospect of waiting for an indeterminate amount of time in jail for trial adds pressure. The accused person can plead guilty and begin to serve their time, or be released altogether. There are economic incentives to make this choice as well, like maintaining current employment or supporting non-incarcerated family members, but there are long-term consequences. A permanent criminal record has negative effects on employment, housing options, voting rights, immigration status, child custody, and physical and mental health.   

 Bail Bonds

To protect their friends and family, many people take out predatory bail bonds loans to pay their bail. Most states give these lenders excessive power over those they lend to, tasking them with returning their clients to jail if they break the law or skip court. This allows lenders to leverage their clients, which they then used to charge excessively steep fees and interest.

Why Abolish Cash Bail? Why not?

Activists at the Bail Project and other anti-cash bail organizations generally propose three things: the elimination of pretrial detention except in cases where there is an imminent threat of violence, an investment in pretrial services, and a coordinated effort to address racial bias at every level of the criminal justice system. While these might appear to be radical reforms, they were tried and proven successful. In Washington, D.C., almost 88% of defendants were released without a financial commitment. Over the past five years, 88% of released defendants made their court appearances, 88% of defendants were not re-arrested while awaiting trial. 99% of those released were not re-arrested on a violent crime charge within the community. The success of D.C.’s policy suggests that the question on cash bail abolishment should not be why abolish, but why not? Congressional leaders should respond to the will of the Minnesota Freedom Fund supporters and recognize the need to abolish cash bail now.

Ava DeSantis

Ava DeSantis is Gen Z Voice at The Pavlovic Today. She has a background in political science and history at George Washington University.