Ninety days. That’s how long Veronica Rex was incarcerated, pretrial. It was during those 90 days Rex lost her job and missed the birth of her grandchild. She tried getting her bail lowered, and was denied. It was also during that time that Rex found a flier for the Philadelphia Community Bail Fund in the jail library.
“I read the flier and it said about cash bail, ‘bailing Black mamas out,’” Rex, who is now a core organizer with the Philadelphia Community Bail Fund, said. “I contacted my daughter. This was on a Friday afternoon when I saw it, and I called her and I said, ‘I just seen this thing and it says they bailing out mothers.’ And she’s like, ‘Mom, it’s 5 o’clock on a Friday.’”
Rex’s daughter did call that Friday and left a message as her mother asked. Then the following Monday, she received a call about a visitor from the Philadelphia Community Bail Fund who bailed her out that Friday, a week after she found the flier.
The Philadelphia Community Bail Fund was created in 2017 when a group of grassroot organizers answered a call from Southerners on New Ground to get together for National Mama’s Bail Out Day to post bail for mothers in time for Mother’s Day.
“We were able to raise $50,000 to bail out Black mothers,” Candace McKinley, lead organizer at the Philadelphia Community Bail Fund, said. “I think our goal was something like $5,000.”
That first year, the group spent a lot of time figuring out how to post bail and how to navigate the system, limiting the number of people they could bail out in time for Mother’s Day.
“That Mother’s Day, we were able to bail out 13 mothers entirely,” McKinley said.
The group remained together after the holiday to ensure they used the rest of the money raised to post bail.
“We decided to stick together and become a year-round bail fund, because we knew this was a great need,” McKinley said. “Our goal is to end cash bail and pretrial detention in Philadelphia. Until that day comes, we’ll post bail for our neighbors who can’t afford to pay.”
Since 2017, the organization has bailed out 660 people.
Under a cash bail system, people arrested for a crime can be released on their own recognizance if they pay a certain dollar amount, under the condition that they will appear for all of their court dates until their case is resolved.
“In Philadelphia, you have to pay 10% to get free,” McKinley said. “So, we often see fees set in the bail fund is $50,000, meaning a person has to come up with $5,000 to be free.”
McKinley said the bail fund sees a range of bail amounts people need aid with, from $30 up to $100,000.
“Most people, because we are in the poorer city, people really can’t afford the bails that are set,” McKinley said.
Cash bail is found to disproportionately impact people who are poor because they do not have the resources to pay bail, according to a report from the Criminal Justice Policy Program at Harvard Law School. Thus, the system disproportionately affects people of color, Sameer Kheten, operations coordinator at the Philadelphia Community Bail Fund, said.
“It’s well noted how stubborn or how persistent income inequality and poverty is in Philadelphia,” Kheten said.
Being held on cash bail has a snowball effect, according to McKinley. Even after a three day jail stint in jail, a person may lose their job, which then causes them to lose their housing due to an inability to pay rent or a mortgage. Additionally, if someone has children, they can lose custody of them.
“It’s just something where you’re constantly fighting to get back to equilibrium,” McKinley said. “Even while you’re trying to fight for your freedom long term, because you’re facing criminal charges.”
People who are held pretrial can wait months for a court date, and COVID-19 has meant some people may wait more than a year, McKinley said. The wait and cascading impacts associated with pretrial detention, according to one research study, has been found to encourage people to accept plea deals.
A plea deal results in a criminal conviction, which can have other, long-term repercussions for defendants.
“Now they’re branded a felon possibly or criminal,” McKinley said.
Taking a case to trial can let a person defend their innocence, and posting bail can help defendants keep their lives together while they prepare for trial, she said.
“Like 70% of the people that we bail out end up having their cases dismissed, withdrawn, and found not guilty,” McKinley said. “These are people who probably, if they stayed in jail, might have accepted a plea deal, which has even longer-term effects on their whole life.”
The stigma that comes with a conviction can be difficult to escape, Rex said, but the disruption that comes with pretrial detention can keep a person from thinking about those long term consequences.
“You lose once you’re involved in the system,” she said. “It ruins a lot of opportunities for people, especially Black and brown people getting turned down for housing and getting turned down for employment.”
Aside from bail support, the Philadelphia Community Bail Fund also offers supportive services such as helping individuals purchase TransPasses to get to court dates or work, and offering assistance with housing, groceries, and clothes.
Volunteers at the bail fund also worked with Rex on her resume, which helped her secure a job at Prevention Point, where she has worked for two years.
Bail fund staff also advocate for their cause by organizing rallies, car caravans, and protests at jails. They also facilitate call-in days and letter writing campaigns to elected officials and judges.
Through its advocacy and support for those awaiting trial, Philadelphia Community Bail Fund hopes to end the cash bail system entirely.
“Part of our purpose in posting cash bail is supposed to demonstrate that we don’t need the system,” McKinley said.
People interested in supporting the bail fund are encouraged to donate and can reach out to the organization to volunteer.
“What we really need is for folks to get educated on this and spread the word and have conversations with other folks,” Kheten said. “We’re gonna need that to happen on a mass scale to build the movement. It’s not easy, and it involves a lot of people challenging a lot of things that are really ingrained.”
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