Bail Funds are Having a Moment in 2020Roundup
tags: racism, criminal justice, bail
Melanie Newport is an assistant professor of history at the University of Connecticut. She teaches at the Hartford campus.
Amid the covid-19 pandemic and the protests in response to the police killing of George Floyd, bond funds have risen to prominence as a focus of philanthropic energy. “If you can’t march, donate to a bond fund” became a common refrain in social media posts as an isolated public sought to make a difference from home through viral donation-matching campaigns. Within days, the Minnesota Freedom Fund announced that it had raised $20 million. The Chicago Community Bond fund has raised $3.5 million from 75,000 donors worldwide.
The Constitution ensures a right to a speedy trial and guarantees the presumption of innocence, but it does not guarantee a right to pretrial freedom. People who are accused of crimes are either held in jail or released with conditions, most commonly by paying a bail bond — a security paid to courts that is forfeited if a person fails to show up to trial. People who obtain these securities from bail bondsmen sign agreements that allow them to be captured by bounty hunters, a practice made famous by television’s “Dog the Bounty Hunter.”
Movement organizers and legal advocates today recognize that the arrests of protesters and community members should not mean jail time. But the problem with bail runs deeper than the ability to raise money. While it is widely assumed that keeping people in jail helps public safety, in fact, it has long perpetuated racial and economic divides and placed people accused of crimes in dangerous jail conditions.
Bail emerged in tandem with the rise of the modern jail. In early America, there was little need for extended detention in advance of a trial. Within close-knit communities, trials could be held quickly, and it was easy to locate someone for trial. Bail was paid only if someone didn’t show up.
As cities and judicial systems grew, cities adopted the English common law tradition of prepaying bail because urban jails could not hold everyone accused and they did not trust strangers to appear. Those confined in jails faced poor conditions: Jails lacked toilets, suffered rampant bed bug infestations, had no uniforms or means of washing prisoners’ clothes and offered no health care of any kind. But not everyone endured such harmful, and potentially deadly, experiences. By the 1920s, social scientists understood that bail ensured that poor people who could not afford their freedom suffered in jail, while the rich went free.
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