Bail reform is state-by-state and full of fits and starts. Some activists are taking direct action, raising funds to bail out defendants too poor to pay.
The State of Bail Reform
While racial justice and criminal justice reform activists have long argued that cash bail criminalizes poverty, mainstream awareness has increased in recent months. For example, the Minnesota Freedom Fund, an organization that had just one full-time employee until this summer, received more than $30 million in donations after police killed George Floyd.
It remains to be seen whether public consciousness will accelerate the end of money bail. But the system is changing in one state at a time, with some facing backlash from both bail proponents and critics. Bail alternatives encompass everything from legal assistance to house arrest.
State by State
Alaskapassed a bill in 2018 that largely eliminated cash bail for defendants as part of an effort to reduce the state’s ballooning prison population. Critics have referred to the program as “catch and release,” and there has been substantial political pushback.
California, where the median bail is $50,000, passed a bill in 2018 that was designed to eliminate cash bail. But it has not been implemented, partially because human rights activists argue that it gives elected county judges too much power and relies too heavily on risk assessment tools.
Georgia saw bail reform in 2018 when Atlanta’s mayor signed a bill eliminating cash bail for defendants accused of violating city ordinances. Activists say that the law doesn’t go far enough to protect mentally ill defendants. And the Georgia senate considered a bill in March of 2020 that would actually fortify the cash bail system by eliminating “own-recognizance bonds.”
Bail reform advocates increasingly are taking direct action: raising charitable funds they use to put up bail for defendants too poor to pay their way out of jail.
These efforts by groups such as The Bail Project and collectives like National Bailout, which organizes the Black Mama’s Bailout for Mother’s Day, have sprung up across the country. Because bail is typically returned as long as a defendant meets their court obligations, donations can be used repeatedly to bail out more people.
Proponents of bail funds see their work as a form of political resistance, using fundraising to chip away at a system they believe should not depend on money. As huge protests swept the country in the wake of the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor these bail funds have seen an unprecedented flood of financial support, raising questions about how best to leverage their newfound prominence. Organizations in Chicago, Los Angeles, Philadelphia and Portland as well as Minnesota have also experienced an influx of funds.
In Kira Akerman’s short documentary, Black pre-law student Chastity Hunter describes being arrested during a Tinder date for a crime she didn’t commit and spending five harrowing days in jail because she couldn’t afford a $450 bail.