Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Why is Malcolm Jenkins bailing out Philly criminal defendants?

The Eagles defensive back and Players Coalition cofounder called Philadelphia's money bail system unjust and racist.

Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner, left, and Players Coalition Co-Founder and Philadelphia Eagles Safety Malcolm Jenkins, right, host a press conference to address the injustices with the money bail system in Philadelphia, November 26, 2018.
Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner, left, and Players Coalition Co-Founder and Philadelphia Eagles Safety Malcolm Jenkins, right, host a press conference to address the injustices with the money bail system in Philadelphia, November 26, 2018.Read moreJESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer

On Sunday afternoon, defensive back Malcolm Jenkins made a red-zone interception that could turn out to be a season-saving play for the Eagles. By Monday morning, he had turned his attention to a more serious matter — if such a thing is even possible in Philadelphia.

Jenkins, a cofounder of the social-justice advocacy group the Players Coalition, was at the Kensington nonprofit Impact Services to call for reforms to the city's money-bail system, which he called unjust and racist. Ahead of the Thanksgiving holiday, Jenkins and other Eagles players posted $25,000 — matched by $25,000 from the Eagles Social Justice Fund — to bail out nine Philadelphians so they could be home with their families.

"This is easier to do after a win. I will say that," said Jenkins, who spoke alongside District Attorney Larry Krasner and Chief Public Defender Keir Bradford-Grey, as well as community activists and members of the Philadelphia Community Bail Fund, which handled the bailout.

He said the convening of officials and organizers was meant as a model that can be replicated around the country for community-led reform of the criminal justice system, beginning with its front door. The bailout was paired with a resource fair, so those who were released could gain access to workforce training and social services, which he said are vital to the success of the initiative.

"The cash bail system punishes poverty and … punishes people of color at a grossly disproportionate rate," Jenkins said. "Some people say we need the system to make our community safe  — but as you can see here with these groups, we have everything we need to make our community safer, when we decide to invest in people and wrap our arms around people, as opposed to locking them up."

The Thanksgiving bailout was part largesse, part protest — against pretrial detentions that critics say are destabilizing and traumatic, and that have been found in Philadelphia to push poor defendants into guilty pleas at a rate that's 13 percent higher than those released before trial. For those who are sentenced, pretrial detention correlates with a 42-percent increase in the length of incarceration.

"This should not be a country where you sit in jail because you are poor," Krasner said. "That has to end."

Researchers who've analyzed Philadelphia bail decisions have found black defendants are subjected to bail at higher rates than white ones, even in cases where they are less likely to be arrested again while awaiting trial.

Krasner — who after taking office this year published a list of 25 types of offenses that would no longer be subject to cash bail — said his policy has helped reduce the jail population by more than 1,500 people.

"We did a comprehensive study of those people who were given on our recommendation no bail to see if they were showing up in court [they were] and to see if they were committing new crimes [they were not]," he said.

The officials acknowledged that in order to dismantle the money-bail system, Pennsylvania legislators would have to follow the lead of other states, including New Jersey, and enact reform at the statewide level. Jenkins, who this year successfully championed the Clean Slate Act to automatically expunge some criminal records, said he has not begun those conversations with state lawmakers but is willing to return to Harrisburg to lobby for bail reform if necessary.

To roll back the use of bail locally without legislative action would require support from leadership of the Philadelphia courts, which was not present at the event.

Still, Krasner said, conversations with the courts have been positive. He added, "I think that the more any of us including the courts see where the popular will is, the more we'll all be able to work together."

Reuben Jones, a bail fund organizer, declined to identify the individuals whose bails were posted with Eagles' funds, the charges they faced or their bail amounts. They had been incarcerated anywhere from a few weeks to several months. One was just 17 years old.

Jones said their families, by and large, had not held out hope of scraping together money for bail in advance of the holiday. "Once people get assigned a bail they know they can't afford, they resign themselves to staying in jail until their case is resolved," he said.

"A big part of our work is helping people restore their dignity," added Bethany Stewart, another bail fund organizer.

After the news conference, organizers hosted a services fair for the people who were bailed out, to connect them with reentry organizations such as Menzfit, which provides suits and job-readiness training, and Philadelphia Auto and Parole, a nonprofit that trains aspiring auto mechanics.

The Center for Returning Citizens also had a table at the event, but its founder, Jondhi Harrell, surveyed the room skeptically.

"Here, you have more organizations than folks who were bailed out," he said. "We need to scale it up."

He applauded what the Players Coalition accomplished — but wants it to think bigger. Though the Philadelphia jails have started running buses to connect people released to homeless shelters, Harrell thinks there's far more to be done. Everyone released from jail should have access to this buffet of opportunities, he said.

"People get out of jail at 2 or 3 in the morning, and there's no one waiting for them. They're at the bus stop across the street with barely enough money to get home, and when they get home, who knows what's there for them. We need to make sure they have support."