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Protect Bail Funds—and End Cash Bail

June 21, 2023 Category: FeatureFeaturedOp-ed

A terrifying scene played out in Atlanta last week.

A SWAT team, armed with assault rifles and flash grenades, burst down the door of a home in a quiet neighborhood and arrested three people. Their alleged crime: running a bail fund.

I’m the Director of Organizing for the Philadelphia Bail Fund. When I heard about this attack on our sister fund, I immediately realized that the same thing could happen here. Like Philly soon will be, Atlanta is a heavily progressive city, headed by a Black mayor, but embedded in a state with a conservative legislature. Both cities have a long, ugly history of over policing Black communities. Both cities use a cash bail system as part of their criminal courts.

I urge our mayor-to-be to condemn these arrests, and to join our call for an end to cash bail. Her position on both is unclear, as she was a notable no-show at our mayor’s forum last month. The people of Philadelphia deserve to know what she thinks about the cash bail system and about bail funds like ours.

Bail is still a huge problem in Philadelphia.

graphic created by Generocity

Because the court won’t release comprehensive numbers, we had to assemble data on it from multiple sources. We found that, in 2022, there were at least 9,007 people held on a total of $2.9 billion in cash bail in Philadelphia.

From our Partners

That’s 9,007 people who were jailed based only on an accusation that they did something wrong—no trial, no evidence presented, and no chance to tell their side of the story. That’s about 54 percent of all the people who went to court. By comparison, Washington DC has about half as many people but, since they’ve gotten rid of cash bail, only 972 people were held before trial in 2022, about 15% of the people who went to court. The most common bail in Philadelphia was $50,000 and the average bail was $290,260.

I’d understand if these numbers surprise you. Both sides of the political aisle, each for their own reasons, have been talking as if bail was already eliminated in Philadelphia. But it remains a deeply destructive force in the community.

People held on bail are innocent until proven guilty, but are trapped behind bars unless they can come up with money for bail. In many cases, they cannot. In the thousands of bail hearings we have observed, magistrates rarely ask the financial situation of the people before them, most of whom are poor. Bail hearings are just a few minutes long and are all conducted via remote video from the police station. That makes it impossible for the person being charged to have a private conversation with an attorney, and in many cases it is difficult for them to either hear or speak.

Bail funds like ours work to raise money from the community and then pay the bails of as many people as possible as early as possible, to try to lessen the pain inflicted on our neighbors. This is a very old idea — a form of community support as old as soup kitchens and homeless shelters. Like those charities, we are working to help the poor deal with a system that often criminalizes and stigmatizes poverty.

It is that act of community solidarity that police in Atlanta are trying to label as criminal. Prosecutors there accused three organizers of the bail fund of money laundering. Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp said that by posting bail, the organizers “facilitated and encouraged domestic terrorism” because some of the people freed had been arrested in anti-police protests.

The judge in the case told prosecutors he was not impressed and allowed the three organizers to go free (once they paid bail, of course.) Legal experts and civil rights activists nationwide have blasted the arrests as an attack on the foundations of the civil rights movement and a clear attempt by the government to stifle free speech.

I’d like to think this can never happen here.

But given Council member Parker’s support of other troubling police tactics, such as “stop and frisk,” I’m far from sure. I urge her to declare that she will not target for prosecution any bail funds operating in Philadelphia.

And I urge her to understand the damage that bail is causing to our Black communities.

I have worked with hundreds of people who have had to face this system, either themselves or for their loved ones. I have learned from them how incredibly destructive it is. Philadelphia’s jails are notoriously filthy, dangerous, overcrowded, and deadly places. In some ways, it’s impossible for us to fully understand how much bail has cost these folks in the form of lost jobs, lost wages, lost housing, lost custody of children, missed birthdays or funerals, violent abuse, exposure to COVID, and sheer emotional and physical pain.

In other ways we know exactly what it cost. In a previous study, we revealed that ordinary people in Philadelphia—our brothers, sisters, children and neighbors—paid a total of at least $21 million in cash bail for the freedom of their loved ones in 2021. Almost a third of that money was paid by people in just five zip codes (19120, 19124, 19134, 19140, and 19143) that make up Philadelphia’s poorest and most heavily Black communities, including Olney and Cobbs Creek — the same communities that powered Parker’s win in the Democratic primary.

Cash bail is costing the poorest Philadelphians tens of millions of dollars, which they desperately need for things like food, rent, and medical care. Our organization posts as many bails as we can, but it’s not enough, and we receive far more requests than we can afford to pay. We need to know that the city will continue to respect our work as a community resource, and we need to end cash bail in Philadelphia.

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A terrifying scene played out in Atlanta last week, and I want to know what Cherelle Parker thinks about it.

A SWAT team, armed with assault rifles and flash grenades, burst down the door of a home in a quiet neighborhood and arrested three people. Their alleged crime: running a bail fund.

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