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A National Push For Victims’ Rights is Now Hitting Florida. But Critics Are Fighting Back.

Kelsey Grammer appears in an ad supporting Marsy’s Law.
Youtube / Marsy's Law For All

A National Push For Victims’ Rights is Now Hitting Florida. But Critics Are Fighting Back.

Voters in Florida may soon get to decide whether to give victims of crime a bigger say in the criminal justice system.

A proposed amendment to the state constitution known as Marsy’s Law for Florida would enshrine specific rights for crime victims, such as the right to privacy and the “right to be reasonably protected from the accused.” It would also give victims legal standing to testify during hearings to determine a defendant’s bail, sentencing, plea deals and parole.

“The pain a victim suffers in the aftermath of a crime is hard enough without being revictimized by the criminal justice system,” said Senator Lauren Book of Broward County, herself a victim of sexual abuse as a child and now an advocate for Marsy’s Law for Florida. “Marsy’s Law will give each victim the promise of having their voice heard.”

On February 20, Senator Book and Pasco County, Florida Sheriff Chris Nocco introduced the amendment, which would add victims’ rights language to Florida’s constitution. According to the campaign, it would create“enforceable constitutional protections, the same level that is afforded to those accused and convicted, nothing more and nothing less.” If the Florida Constitution Revision Commission approves the amendment, it will be placed on the 2018 general election ballot, where it requires 60 percent approval by voters to be added to the state constitution.

But Florida isn’t the only place considering or implementing these reforms. They’re part of a national campaign led by Henry T. Nicholas, the brother of University of California Santa Barbara student Marsalee “Marsy” Nicholas, who was murdered by an ex-boyfriend in 1983.

Thus far, the amendments have been enacted in Illinois, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Ohio. This year, efforts to pass Marsy’s Law are underway in Kentucky, Florida, Georgia, Nevada, North Carolina, Wisconsin, Idaho, Oklahoma, Maine, New Hampshire, and Iowa, according to the campaign’s national website.

Nicholas, who later earned billions as founder of the tech company Broadcom, started his crusade after his mother saw Marsy’s accused killer at a grocery store a week after her death. She didn’t know he had been bailed out of jail. Determined to protect other victims and their families, he led a successful effort in 2008 to add a victim’s bill of rights to the California constitution. The next year, he formed and funded Marsy’s Law for All to pursue similar amendments in states across the country. He hopes one day to amend the U.S. Constitution as well.

“If any good can come of something this horrible–the loss of my sister and the losses of other families of crime victims,” he said, “it is that these violent acts served as a catalyst for change.”

But in places where that change has come, critics say it’s done more harm than good. Not only has it failed to accomplish its stated goals, they say, but it’s trampled on the rights of people accused of crimes.

The Debate in Florida

Florida’s constitution already gives victims of crime the “right to be informed, to be present, and to be heard when relevant, at all crucial stages of criminal proceedings, to the extent that these rights do not interfere with the constitutional rights of the accused.”

But Marsy’s Law for Florida would expand the definition of “victim” to include anyone who “suffers direct or threatened physical, psychological, or financial harm as a result of the commission or attempted commission of a crime or delinquent act or against whom a crime or delinquent act is committed.” And it would remove language subordinating victims’ rights to the constitutional rights of people accused of crimes.

It would allow victims to refuse to be questioned under oath by defense attorneys outside of the courtroom, which, Marsy’s Law supporters argue causes victims additional trauma.

Marsy’s Law for Florida would also limit the time that defendants have to appeal their cases, requiring that “[a]ll state-level appeals and collateral attacks on any judgment must be complete within 2 years from the date of appeal in non-capital cases and 5 years in capital cases.”

Critics say these changes and others would tip the scales of justice too far in favor of victims.

In a state with the most death row exonerations in the nation, for instance, Marsy’s Law would prevent defense attorneys from interviewing victims privately about eyewitness identification, a notoriously unreliable form of testimony that has contributed to roughly 70 percent of convictions later overturned by DNA nationwide.

“Preventing defense attorneys from questioning the most unreliable testimony against a client only weakens our justice system,” wrote Howard Finkelstein, chief public defender of Broward County, in a recent opinion piece.

Opponents of the law say allowing victims to refuse defense questioning also conflicts with the right of people accused of crimes to confront the witnesses against them, and to obtain witnesses and other evidence in their favor, which are both guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. When the rights of the accused conflict with the rights of the victim, Marsy’s Law provides no guidance to the court on how to proceed.

“Allowing victims to refuse to give sworn statements to defense attorneys will increase the likelihood of wrongful convictions and burden our already overburdened courts with more trials,” said Finkelstein.

Legal Ammunition

In places that have enacted Marsy’s Law, public defenders say their clients are suffering.

In South Dakota, where Marsy’s Law was passed in 2016, Minnehaha County public defender Traci Smith lamented last year that the victims’ rights created by Marsy’s Law were “usurping” the constitutional rights of her clients. In addition to causing people accused of crimes to spend unnecessary time in jail by delaying hearings, Smith said, Marsy’s Law has interfered with her duty to reach out to victims on her clients’ behalf.

Indeed, one of Smith’s paralegals received a cease and desist letter from the state attorney general’s office after she left two voicemails for the victim in a bad check case. Critics say providing prosecutors with legal ammunition to hinder defense investigations could be catastrophic in an environment where paralegals with public defender offices have already found themselves harassed and even prosecuted by DAs.

Beyond threatening the constitutional rights of the accused, opponents say, Marsy’s Law fails to achieve its own stated goals. While it claims to protect victims from the “trauma” of legal questioning, for example, victims will still be cross-examined in court by defense attorneys. The law also doesn’t address the potential trauma inflicted on victims by police and prosecutors, who can question victims as they see fit.

And while one of the law’s objectives is to ensure a speedy trial for the victim, the law’s requirements of victim input on plea deals, bond decisions, and sentencing will only slow down criminal proceedings.

“I think Marsy’s Law is judgmental overkill,” retired Santa Clara County, California public defender Roderick O’Connor told The Appealnoting that even its language seems to vilify the accused. When Marsy’s Law was approved by California voters in 2008, O’Connor says, it was “pitched as a way to elevate crime victims over offenders, but as applied it was clearly intended to truncate the rights of inmates to achieve parole and those accused of crimes to investigate their cases and pursue defenses.”

In juvenile cases, allowing victims to be present and heard in all proceedings could result in a “severe erosion of the confidentiality needed for the juvenile system to function,” wrote Anna Elbroch, a New Hampshire attorney who represents young people accused of crimes, in a recent op-ed. Giving victims the right to participate in every stage of the criminal process could also “serve to pressure prosecutors to pursue a more punitive approach, rather than the treatment and rehabilitation approach on which the juvenile justice system is based,” she said.

In North Dakota, where voters approved the amendment in 2016, the law’s ambiguous language has caused it to be unevenly applied from county to county. And uncertainty over its requirements has made it easier for public officials to hide information from the public; one Bismarck police officerinvolved in a shooting invoked Marsy’s Law because he’d first been beaten by the victim.

Other critics have called Marsy’s Law a costly unfunded mandate that has strained county budgets. Pennington County, South Dakota State’s Attorney Mark Vargo said Marsy’s Law forced him to hire four new employees to notify victims of their new rights and the status of their cases, costing his county of about 100,000 residents $161,000.

Testifying against Marsy’s Law in 2017, Ohio Public Defender Tim Young told legislators that the law “does not provide additional resources and the government remains immune to liability.”

The campaign did not respond to calls and emails from The Appeal. But supporters of Marsy’s Law argue that such complaints are exaggerated and that supporting crime victims justifies any increased workload.

“This is about balancing the rights between defendant and victim — and having a system that offers equality as a right, not a courtesy,” said Amanda Grady Sexton, state director of Marsy’s Law for New Hampshire. “No system is 100 percent perfect, but the rules of enforceability for a violation of a constitutional right [are] clear.”

“Going Up Against a Billionaire”

Despite their drawbacks, victims’ rights measures are popular with voters. Polls conducted in 2016 in MontanaNorth Dakota, and South Dakota before the amendments passed found at least 70 percent of respondents favored them. The Montana ballot measure passed in 2016 with 66 percent of the vote. The North Dakota and South Dakota ballot measures were approved the same year by 62 percent and 60 percent of voters, respectively. In Ohio, where state Attorney General Mike DeWine co-chaired the campaign, Marsy’s Law was approved by a 4–1 margin in 2017.

Florida could soon follow suit. An October 2017 survey found that 85 percent of 700 likely Florida voters agreed with the idea of Marsy’s Law protections.

“It really doesn’t surprise me that it’s polling well,” Caitlin Borgmann, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Montana, which opposed Marsy’s Law, told Governing magazine. “It’s difficult to take a position against it because it sounds like you’re opposing victims.”

Indeed, the Marsy’s Law campaign has often exploited the sympathy that many people feel for victims. Responding to a blog post critical of Marsy’s Law for North Dakota, the campaign’s chairwoman, Kathleen Wrigley, wrote: “I ask these opponents to look into the eyes of the Perleberg family, whose son and brother [were] murdered at a wedding reception, or tell Mrs. Melby, whose daughter was raped and sexually assaulted in Minot, that the hurdles they’ve had in the system are no big deal. Or, try to convince the four-year-old child pornography victim’s parents that their child isn’t part of the system.”

In each state, the Marsy’s Law campaign has enlisted top political consultants and lobbyists, secured big political endorsements, and run a slick public relations campaign. Nicholas has spent more than $20 million on these efforts, including an advertisement featuring Frasier star Kelsey Grammer.

During the 2016 campaign, Ryan Kolbeck, president of the South Dakota Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers said he was outmatched by the emotionally appealing and well-funded victims’ rights campaign. “We did our best to educate the public, but we had a Facebook page and $5,000,” Kolbeck said. “We are going up against a billionaire.”

The Road Ahead

One of the reasons the Marsy’s Law campaign has focused on constitutional amendments is that, once enacted, a constitutional amendment is harder to change than a statute, which lawmakers regularly amend or repeal as needed.

Yet despite the expense and effort, lawmakers and courts have already begun to modify Marsy’s Laws.

In 2014, a federal judge ruled that a portion of California’s Marsy’s Law was unconstitutional, overturning a provision that lengthened the minimum time between parole hearings from one year to three years, though the ruling was later reversed. In Montana, the State Supreme Court recently ruled it unconstitutional and “void in its entirety.”

In South Dakota, lawmakers are now working to amend the amendment, citing unintended consequences like high costs to counties.

Even some victims there are now fighting against Marsy’s Law. Lynne Forbush told lawmakers that after her husband was killed by a 16-year-old in a car crash, the driver’s mother invoked Marsy’s Law, which restricted the release of vehicle crash reports. Forbush had to retain an attorney to obtain an accident report in order to begin her insurance claim. The state was of little help to Forbush; she said she was told that Marsy’s Law was so poorly conceived that even state employees could not navigate it.

“It seemed like a hot potato that no one wanted to touch,” she said. “Marsy’s Law added to our emotional pain, added to the financial burden, and prolonged the agony unnecessarily.

Eyewitness to Bronx Murder Alleges Prosecutorial Misconduct, Makes Eleventh-Hour Recantation

But the witness may have flipped again, leaving the future of the conviction up in the air.

Caryn Santa, Collazo’s mother, and Robert Collazo, pictured on the right.
Photo provided by Caryn Santa

Eyewitness to Bronx Murder Alleges Prosecutorial Misconduct, Makes Eleventh-Hour Recantation

But the witness may have flipped again, leaving the future of the conviction up in the air.

On the evening of January 29, 2018, Caryn Santa knew she only had a few hours to save her son, Robert Collazo. Collazo, 21, had been held on Rikers Island for almost three years, charged with the murder of Jose Velasquez. Around 3:35 a.m. on Easter Sunday in 2015, Velasquez, 19, was fatally shot near the corner of East Burnside and Walton Avenues in the Bronx. On April 9, 2015, Collazo was arrested after a Bronx man named Joenelvy Ferreras identified him as the shooter in a multiple photo identification and an in-person line-up shown to him by police, according to a disclosure form prepared by a prosecutor on the case.

Collazo’s attorney Martin Goldberg claimed, however, that the police’s identification procedures were tainted. Ferreras told the police that the perpetrator was a light-skinned man, but in the police line-up “there were only two light skinned-guys,” said Goldberg. Goldberg also said that Ferreras was likely to pick Collazo because his friend, Jailene Espinal, had already shown him Collazo’s photo while texting about the shooting.

Furthermore, footage of Collazo from a party Espinal threw the night of the murder captured by a camera inside her building did not match the surveillance footage of the shooter taken from a nearby store, according to Goldberg. “At the party, he’s wearing a distinctive teal colored hat and teal shirt,” said Goldberg. “That didn’t look like the shooter.”

Despite the factual issues with the case, Collazo was convicted of second-degree murder when he went to trial in the Bronx in December of 2017.

So on that freezing January evening, Santa assumed that her son was about to be sentenced and sent upstate. Santa, a house cleaner, had scraped together what she could to hire Manuel Gomez, a former NYPD officer turned private investigator, and was accompanying him as he searched for evidence that could prove her son’s innocence. That night, Gomez and Santa tracked down key witnesses Ferreras and Espinal, who alleged in sworn written affidavits that the Bronx district attorney’s office had pressured them to change their stories about what happened the night of the Velasquez murder.

With this new evidence in hand, the Collazo defense team moved to file a “330.30 motion” that could set aside the verdict. Already rocked by recent accusations of rampant sexual activity, alcohol use, and fighting amongst its staff, the Bronx district attorney’s office now faces an allegation that threatens to further erode the public’s faith in its prosecutors: the coercion of witnesses in the pursuit of a conviction.

That January night, Santa and Gomez pulled up to the Bronx building where Ferreras, the sole identifying witness in her son’s case, resided. Santa had heard this was the building where Ferreras lived, but they didn’t know Ferreras’s apartment number or if he was even home.

After about 45 minutes, Gomez walked back to the car where Santa waited, looking happy. “He said, ‘Look, this is it’,” said Santa in an interview with The Appeal, referring to a signed affidavit that Gomez obtained from Ferreras. In the affidavit, Ferreras stated that he was “harassed by” Orville Reynolds, a Bronx assistant district attorney, “to change” his statements in the case against Collazo. Ferreras, who affirmed his claims about the ADA in a recorded video statement, said that he had never seen the shooter’s face and indicated that he had told prosecutors about texts he had sent a friend the night of the murder in which he had said the same thing.

“I asked, ‘Is this going to help?’” Santa remembered. “He was like, ‘Of course, that’s everything.’ I couldn’t believe it.”

The next morning, on January 30, 2018, Judge Lester D. Adler of the Ninth Judicial District Court called for an adjournment “in light of the documentation” that Santa provided to her son’s attorney, according to court minutes reviewed by The Appeal. With the judge’s decision, the murder case against Collazo appeared to be in jeopardy.

It was a moment of real hope for Collazo — but even today his fate remains unclear, largely because Ferreras may have recanted the statement he gave to Gomez. Collazo’s attorney Martin Goldberg is being taken off the case because he may be called as a witness in the motion to set aside its verdict. That motion will be filed by a new defense attorney, who will be assigned to the case on March 12. And in a March 3 phone call with The Appeal, Goldberg, a former prosecutor himself, said that he heard that the state’s sole identifying witness, Ferreras, may have gone back on his recantation in a new statement to Bronx prosecutors.

Joenelvy Ferreras, screenshot from a video statement provided by Ferreras to Manual Gomez, private investigator at Black Ops Private Investigators, Inc.

Ferreras himself seemed to corroborate the rumor of his apparent change of heart in a March 4 telephone call with Gomez, the private investigator. When Gomez asked who he spoke with in the district attorney’s office to again change his statement, Ferreras said he spoke with ADA Reynolds. In a brief phone call on March 1 with The Appeal, Ferreras refused to answer questions about his previous allegations that ADA Reynolds had pressured him to implicate Collazo in the Velasquez murder. “I did what I had to do,” said Ferreras, “I told the truth in court … Leave me the fuck alone.”

Collazo insists that he should not have been convicted in a murder based on the testimony of an eyewitness who has changed his story multiple times and that he suspects Ferreras is again being intimidated by the Bronx DA’s office. “Reynolds is probably telling him, ‘I’m going to lock you up, I’m going to charge you.’ He’s probably scaring the kid, he’s a young kid,” said Collazo in a phone call with The Appeal from Rikers Island on March 4. “But he gotta be tough, he’s gotta know, if you know I didn’t do it, how can you go to sleep at night? How can you put away somebody for the rest of their life?”

Though Ferreras appears have recanted the statements he made in the affidavit he gave to Gomez and returned to his original testimony identifying Collazo as the shooter, Collazo’s supporters point to another misconduct allegation against the Bronx district attorney’s office that was uncovered by Gomez the same night he spoke to Ferreras.

In written affidavit from January 29, Jailene Espinal, Ferreras’s friend and the host of the party outside of which the shooting took place, stated that ADA Reynolds “harassed her” by going to her or her boyfriend’s house every “three to two months” and tried to get her “to lie.”

“He wanted me to say Robert Collazo changed all his clothes when I didn’t personality [sic] see him change,” Espinal said in the affidavit. She also said that Ferreras had texted her on the same day of the murder, saying that “he ain’t witness anything he was too drunk to remember…”

It’s unclear if this new evidence will be enough to set aside Collazo’s conviction.

“It’s a question of what the judge wants to believe,” said Goldberg, Collazo’s former attorney. If Ferreras sticks to the original story he told prosecutors, there may not be sufficient reason to set aside the verdict, said Goldberg. But, he continued, “if he says he was pressured [by Reynolds], the judge would agree with us, and the DA would probably decline to prosecute the case.”

Goldberg cautions that there may not have been misconduct in this case. “Reynolds is a decent, honest guy,” says Goldberg. “He’s got a job to do.” (A separate case, where Gomez, the private investigator, showed police coerced witnesses to sign false statements sparked a federally assisted internal investigation into the Bronx district attorney’s office in September 2017.)

“The bottom line is he’s a liar and his credibility is destroyed,” said Gomez of Ferreras in a phone call with The Appeal. “What case do they have? A guy who recants his recantation?”

Prosecutors from the Bronx district attorney’s office also seemed to voice doubt about Collazo’s guilt even after his 2017 conviction. During a January 10, 2018 sentencing hearing, ADA Reynolds said he had offered Collazo “numerous opportunities … to come and speak with me; multiple times, almost at times begging for him to come and speak with me, because I did not want somebody to be on trial if, in fact, they did not commit a crime.”

Goldberg claims that the purpose of such entreaties from ADA Reynolds was to persuade Collazo to testify against yet another suspect, William Hernandez, whom “numerous people” on the street had indicated may have been the real shooter. “In fact, offers were made to my client to actually come and — he was going to testify against the shooter,” Goldberg said at the January 10 sentencing hearing, referring to Hernandez.

Collazo says he refused to consider any such offers to testify against Hernandez because he did not see the shooter that night. “He wanted me to make up some shit, make a lie up,” said Collazo. “Speak about something I don’t know. He just wanted to place somebody else in my shoes … I’m not doing that.”

A detective’s report, released during the discovery process to Goldberg and reviewed by The Appeal, also referred to a picture of another individual as the murder suspect. Gomez, Collazo’s private investigator, believes the photo is of Hernandez.

Robert Collazo, then 18 before his arrest
Photo provided by Caryn Santa

At Collazo’s January 2018 sentencing hearing Goldberg also said ADA Reynolds told him that the Bronx DA’s office had “reason to believe that Mr. Collazo might not have been the shooter,” according to court minutes. Despite these apparent doubts, at the same hearing ADA Reynolds insisted that the judge sentence Collazo that day, saying, “I am asking that Mr. Collazo be sentenced today. I am not here to retry the case.”

Judge Adler did not comply with the state’s request and delayed Collazo’s sentencing. Adler then referenced doubts about the case that appeared to be shared by both sides. “I do not want to sentence anybody for a crime that the attorneys believe, both attorneys — I mean, you know,” the judge said, before calling an off-the-record meeting with the attorneys and granting Collazo a delayed sentencing date.

After a March 12 court date in which a new defense attorney will be assigned to Collazo, upcoming hearings will address the integrity of Ferreras as the sole identifying witness, the motion to set aside the verdict, possible allegations of prosecutorial misconduct, and Collazo’s sentence.

Whether Collazo pulled the trigger that night seems to be irrelevant to ADA Reynolds, Santa claims, referencing a meeting in 2017 with the prosecutor in which he allegedly said her son was prison bound regardless of the case’s outcome. “He said, ‘Let’s keep it official: if he comes home, don’t you think he’s going to get arrested for something else?’,” recalled Santa. “I said, ‘And if he does, then he’ll deal with it. This is a different case.’ ”

The Bronx district attorney’s office declined to comment on issues raised in this article. “We cannot comment on a pending case,” the office wrote in an email.

Before his arrest, Collazo says he never realized how quickly a single prosecutor’s behavior could change his life. “Three years here [on Rikers Island], wasting my life for something I had nothing to do with,” said Collazo in a phone call. “What did I ever do to Reynolds, what did I ever do to the Bronx district attorney’s office? It’s crazy how you could go to a party one day, and the next week you’re locked up.”

The allegations against ADA Reynolds come as a personal injury claim of $15 million against the Bronx district attorney’s office is being brought by crime analyst Crystal Rivera. Rivera alleges that there was a culture of racial bias, on-duty sex, alcohol and even fighting among prosecutors at the DA’s office and that she suffered “mental anguish” after Bronx DA Clark retaliated against her for exposing such misconduct.

Rivera launched her suit after Clark placed her on administrative leave for allegedly violating the DA’s demand that she cut off contact with her boyfriend, NYPD Detective David Terrell, who had been accused of coercing witnesses in a gun and assault case against Pedro Hernandez — the same case, also upended by a Gomez investigation, that launched the federally assisted internal probe into the DA’s Office in September 2017.

Before becoming the Bronx district attorney, Clark promised the creation of a wrongful conviction review unit so that “things like” the Kalief Browder case, would not happen under her watch. Bronx resident Browder was incarcerated for three years on Rikers Island for stealing a backpack, a charge that was later dismissed. A depressed and PTSD-stricken Browder committed suicide in 2015 at the age of 22. Clark was one of several judges who presided over Browder’s case and has been blasted in the press for her promotion of the Bronx assistant district attorney who prosecuted Browder.

“I respect my son to the fullest for this, no matter how many offers they gave, he said he was not guilty,” said Santa, referring to the prosecution’s alleged attempts to get Collazo to testify against Hernandez. “If the person actually committed the crime, then they need to be convicted, but if they didn’t, it’s not all about winning. It’s not about how many times you’ve won so you can be the best ADA.”

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The Black Love Bail Out Aims to Free Poor Defendants — And Teach Others To Do The Same

Photo from Philly Bail Fund / Twitter

The Black Love Bail Out Aims to Free Poor Defendants — And Teach Others To Do The Same

As part of a growing push to end the use of cash bail, a national movement is calling attention to the plight of defendants held in jail simply because they can’t afford to pay their way out.

Last month, it launched the next phase of its work: the Black Love Bail Out, timed to intersect with both Black History Month and Women’s History Month, including today’s celebration of International Women’s Day.

The National Bail Out Collective works with local groups in communities around the country to raise money from the public to free people held on bail. As with last year’s Mama’s Day Bail Out, this one is focused on getting women, femmes, and women-identified people out of jail. Organizers are highlighting the needs of Black women, in particular.

“We wanted to bring an intersectional lens to this conversation and into our movement,” explained Arissa Hall, project manager with the National Bail Fund Network, which is part of the collective. Given how male-focused much of the conversation around criminal justice reform tends to be, the aim is to “lift up how Black women are affected and impacted by the criminal justice system as well, whether it’s folks that are incarcerated or who are left to raise babies and take care of the families.”

“Organizing from the margins is important,” she added. “Once marginalized people are free, then everyone will be.”

The collective is comprised of about 20 organizations, including bail funds, community groups and Black Lives Matter affiliates. Overall, it’s raised close to a million dollars to bail people out and provide them with services. Last year’s first national bailout, the Mama’s Day Bail Out, freed over 100 people. After that, advocates staged a number of other events timed to holidays such as Father’s Day, Juneteenth, and Pride, bailing out at least 100 people more.

This time, organizers are including an important new element: a toolkit to help communities across the country start their own bailouts. As the collective worked with new groups during its bailouts last year, it realized there was a need for a resource outlining the steps and best practices for those wishing to launch their own. So the group has created a document that includes checklists for getting started, what to do on the day of the bailout, and how to follow up after the event itself is over. It also includes a wealth of information on what bail is and how it works, as well as guiding principles for participating in the national coalition.

“The toolkit is intended as an invite for folks to join us on Mother’s Day and beyond,” said Scott Roberts, senior campaign manager at Color of Change, which is part of the national coalition. “We want everyone who feels inspired by this to go out there and do it.”

He hopes the toolkit will also reinforce the values that undergird the bailout movement. “We wanted to make sure that as people replicated [bailouts], they were replicating the entire thing,” Roberts said. “The message was about ending money bail, not this being a charity or direct service operation.”

While some bail reform measures have only eliminated bail for non-violent, low-level offenses, the coalition wants to take a broader approach. It is careful not to discriminate between the different people who need to be bailed out — those charged with violent versus nonviolent crimes, straight versus queer people, old versus young, or those struggling with addiction or other issues. “We wanted to make sure people were embracing our values of inclusivity,” Roberts said.

The toolkit also makes clear that a bailout alone is not enough — it needs to be accompanied by other services and assistance. “Most of the time you can’t just bail someone out and say, ‘Hey good luck with your life,’ and expect that they are going to have a lot of very different outcomes,” Roberts said. Many people need immediate help with housing, food, and healthcare, as well as help returning for court dates, such as transportation or childcare.

“We would be doing a disservice to folks to minimize the amount of work and time and energy that went into having these bailouts, because it was no small feat,” Hall said. It also reflects the fact that “there is no one right way” to do one, she said.

The actual freeing of jailed people for the Black Love Bail Out began with nine people released in Philadelphia last month. Advocates in the city plan to keep bailing people out through March so long as they can raise enough money.

The February bailout came just after the Philadelphia City Council unanimously voted in favor of a resolution calling on the district attorney, state legislature, and courts to end the use of cash bail, and the subsequent announcement from District Attorney Larry Krasner that his office would stop seeking cash bail for 25 low-level misdemeanor offenses.

Reuben Jones of the Philadelphia Community Bail Fund credits his city’s bailouts with helping propel that action. “When we first started talking about cash bail four years ago, we didn’t have political support,” he said. But some of the city’s elected officials actually donated to the bailout last year. “Bailouts were a way to put pressure on the city to show that people don’t have to be confined pretrial to get to court [and] that holding people hostage with bail is inhumane.”

So the recent changes “were huge for us,” Jones said. But he and other advocates also plan to keep pushing forward. “For us, that’s not the end goal,” he said. “We want to … eliminate cash bail.”

“The city was willing to stick its neck out for lower-level offenses, which is a safe choice,” he added. But “we don’t make a distinction between violence versus nonviolence. We want it to be about the practice, not just for low-level misdemeanors.”

Next up will be San Antonio, Texas, where advocates are planning to bail out 20 people later this month. With an upcoming race for district attorney in Bexar County, which includes San Antonio, advocates hope the bailout will help push the new DA to prioritize bail reform. Advocates in Dothan, Alabama will also get in on the action, with plans to bail out around 10 people, as will those in Memphis, Tennessee.

This year’s Mother’s Day bailout promises to be huge. More than 40 organizations have already expressed interest in doing their own bailouts or solidarity actions, roughly double last year’s count. Last week, the coalition held its first webinar with about 35 people to launch the toolkit and it will hold more specific ones in the lead-up to May 13.

Apart from helping individuals, the bailouts aim to further the larger goal of eliminating cash bail by giving advocates more expertise in how the system works. Mary Hooks, co-director of Southerners On New Ground, a group focused on LGBT organizing the South, helped originate the Mama’s Day Bail Out last year. After their bailouts, she and her organization were able to use what they learned firsthand to advocate for bail reform in Atlanta. On February 6, Atlanta’s mayor signed an ordinance eliminating cash ba
for some low-level offenders in municipal court, and later that month the Georgia Senate unanimously passed a proposal giving judges more freedom to avoid cash bail for nonviolent offenses.

The upcoming Mother’s Day bailout is meant to accomplish similar goals. It “will help put this on the map for [participants],” Hall said. “Once people are interacting with the bail system in different ways — paying bail and talking to folks that are in jail because they don’t have the money to pay bail — folks are moved to do something.”

Hall hopes that will lead to bigger changes, and ultimately an end to cash bail. The bailouts are “harm reduction,” she said. “They’re not the solution.”

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