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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.

Photo from Philly Bail Fund / Twitter

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.”