Can a Philly community bail fund fix our criminal-justice system?
The Philly Community Bail Fund is an effort that's part protest against a cash-bail system they say unfairly penalizes the poor, and part stopgap until a more permanent change can be made.
Carlette Golden spent 14 months in jail, wondering exactly what she had been accused of and when she'd get her day in court. Each time she was taken to the Criminal Justice Center, her court date was postponed. She was assigned a lawyer but never met him; her family members tried to track him down, but the phone number they found online went nowhere.
"Every day, I was just existing," she said. "Not knowing anything that's happening in your life is just a horrible way to be. It's a horrible way to live."
Golden said she was arrested when police raided the house where she was renting a room she'd found on Craigslist, and found drugs and guns that she assumes belonged to a roommate. She needed just $5,000 to make bail.
But, she said, "I don't have one of those families where you can just call them and say, 'I need $5,000.' "
Then, she got a visit from some local activists, participating in a nationwide event called Black Mama's Bail-Out Day meant to raise money to bail black women out of jail in time for Mother's Day.
"I didn't believe it," Golden said. But they paid her bail, and that of 12 other women.
Now, the organizers — who raised close to $60,000 in just a week for their first Mother's Day event this year — aim to keep going. They're launching the Philly Community Bail Fund, an effort that's part protest against a cash-bail system they say unfairly penalizes the poor, and part stopgap until a more permanent change can be made.
It's actually one of two such nascent initiatives. The other one, the Philadelphia Bail Fund, has raised more than $20,000 toward an initial $50,000 bailout effort planned for later this year.
At a City Council hearing last week, the activists with the Community Bail Fund, affiliated with groups including the No 215 Jail Coalition, Media Mobilizing Project, and Black Lives Matter, asked the city to help sustain that work by granting them access to the jails to undertake needs assessments with prospective clients, waiving the standard 30 percent it imposes as surety, and enabling the nonprofit to recoup refunded bail after cases are closed so they can use the funds to bail out more people.
Devren Washington, an activist affiliated with Black Lives Matter, said it's an issue of racial equity and social justice.
"The amount of money in your bank account should not be the determining factor of whether you walk free," he said.
Cash bail "is affecting the black community in devastating ways. It creates a two-tiered justice system, because what happens is, once you're held pretrial, you're more likely to plead guilty even if you're innocent."
One recent analysis of Philadelphia cases found that people given cash bail faced not only a 12 percent higher likelihood of conviction but also a significantly higher risk of recidivism.
In Golden's case, she lost her job at the Shop Rite deli counter, her housing, and most of her belongings while she was in jail. She said she would have taken a deal just to get out. Now she intends to fight her case.
Crowdsourced community bail funds already exist in jurisdictions around the country. Such organizations have been established in Massachusetts, New York City, and Chicago.
The Philadelphia Bail Fund — not to be confused with the Philadelphia Community Bail Fund that bailed out Golden — began to take shape about a year ago, according to the fund's president, Maia Jachimowicz, who previously worked as policy director for Mayor Nutter.
She pointed to one key distinction between the two efforts. Whereas the other activists are working to bail out people who have been languishing in jail, she said, "One really important piece for us is providing bail assistance at the earliest possible moment. So our goal here is to bail people out while they're still in their holding cells, before they're transferred to jail. Our rationale is the research that says even two to three days in jail has a really outsize effect on people's lives. We want to interrupt that as early as possible."
They're hoping to bail out a dozen people with their first $50,000 in crowd-funding, collected at Phillybailfund.org, and then refine and expand their efforts.
Jachimowicz said the problem is so big that all efforts are needed. However, the Community Bail Fund activists said they hope the groups could work together and avoid duplicating efforts.
The city has been exploring alternatives to cash bail as part of a larger effort to reduce the city's jail population by one-third. But according to data kept by the First Judicial District, people held on cash bail do not represent the majority of inmates: Only 25 percent of the county jail population is now held on cash bail alone. About 2.5 percent of the jail population is held on bail of $5,000 or less.
District Attorney-elect Larry Krasner has come out against the cash-bail system. Meanwhile, the city is set to embark on a feasibility study for creating day-reporting centers, which have been used in other jurisdictions, like the District of Columbia, that have moved away from cash bail.
Julie Wertheimer, chief of staff to the deputy managing director for criminal justice, said the question is: "How can we best use what's at our disposal for the people who need it to serve them best? It's not just about those pretrial, but about those on probation, those returning home, and those we're trying to divert from the system entirely with a pre-booking diversion model."
For now, though, the community bail-fund activists are continuing their work, which includes providing those returning home with care packages and any needed referrals, such as housing or drug treatment. A bail-out event ahead of the holidays is in the works, according to Reuben Jones, one of the organizers.
He emphasized that the point is not to release everyone from jail, but only to guarantee equal rights for those whom judges deem safe to release while they await trial.
For Jojuan Powell, who said she was arrested while trying to break up a fight among some young people on her block, the bail fund was something like a miracle. She was in jail five days on $25,000 bail in May, before the activists came to bail her out so she could be with her son on Mother's Day. She was so grateful she went to hug one of the activists and accidentally knocked her over.
"If I hadn't been bailed out, I would have sat in jail for four months before the case was dropped," she said.
Jones said the city's assistance would expedite this work.
But, he added, "we've been bailing people out since May with no city support. I'm willing to continue with or without the support of the city."