Black Lives and the Tragic Impact of the Cash-Money Bail System

LOS ANGELES — The current efforts against the cash-money bail system in the United States can look to the Movement for Black Lives as their spark. Over the last year, that movement has brought into the public consciousness the costs — financial and human — of that system, as well as the existence of more humane alternatives to it.

In Los Angeles, for example, a recent study by UCLA’s Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies found that — of the $19.4 billion total that was set as bail over a five-year period (2012 -2016) — $13.5 billion dollars was never paid. As a result, it is estimated that more than 200,000 people could not afford to pay their bail and were forced to remain in jail custody through the disposition of their cases.

That’s geographically speaking. Breaking the numbers down by race is even more troubling:

Blacks, who comprise 8 percent of Los Angeles’ population, paid $40.7 million in nonrefundable fees to bond agents. That’s 21 percent of the total of such fees: Latinos paid $92.1 million and Whites paid $37.9 million.

A breakdown of bail levied by race in Los Angeles county (Source: UCLA)

A breakdown of bail levied by race in Los Angeles County (Source: UCLA)

As San Francisco public radio station KQED reports, the bail system exists to ensure a person is present at the trial for the crime of which they are accused. Bail is supposed to be the “guarantee” that the individual will show up in court. Bail-bond agents, who work in conjunction with insurance companies, require payment to them of 10 percent of the bail amount that is set by the court. For those who may not have, as an example, necessary $50,000 cash to meet the bail requirement set by the court, $5,000 sounds a lot more reasonable.

The problem is that the individual will never see that $5,000 again, even if he or she attends every court date, is found not guilty or had the charges dropped. On the other hand, had the individual been able to pay the court the entire $50,000, that money would be refunded in full. Even if he or she were found guilty.

The UCLA study shows that $194 million was paid to bail agents and not refunded to individuals in L.A. Of the top five zip codes representing persons arrested by LAPD during that period, four of them were in South Los Angeles. Those areas paid nearly $17 million in nonrefundable fees to bond agents during that time.

But the small number of individuals who were able to pay the full amount of their bail to the courts in cash had their $17.6 million returned to them, even when they were convicted of their crimes. In effect, the system operates — irrespective of guilt or innocence — as a forfeiture for those who can least afford it while sparing the well-off.


Forward movement seen

National Black Mamas Bail Out Day

National Black Mamas Bail Out Day

Fortunately, efforts to end the cash-money bail system are gaining momentum throughout the country. In the U.S. Senate, Kamala Harris (D-CA) and Rand Paul (R-KY) have co-sponsored legislation to assist states and other governmental bodies seeking to reform their bail systems. A bill in the California Senate aiming to eliminate the state’s bail system is currently making its way through channels, while New Jersey and Arizona are now more reliant on “risk analysis” to determine who is released from custody and who is not.

This positive momentum is a significant outcome of the adoption, by the Movement for Black Lives (M4BL), of an end to the cash-money bail system as one of the pillars of its platform. Developed in August of 2016, the platform is a result of the coming together of numerous organizations spurred by the development of the Black Lives Matter movement and national network (BLM). BLM — the #hashtag, social movement, and organization — was birthed after the acquittal of George Zimmerman for the killing of Trayvon Martin in July of 2013. BLM gained national and international exposure after the brutal August 2014 killing of Michael Brown by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri.

Among other things, M4BL’s platform states:

  • Low-income people who are arrested spend an average of 23 days in a cage before their day in court simply because they often cannot afford to pay bail. For people who live paycheck to paycheck, even a short stint in jail can have devastating consequences, including job loss, eviction, or having their children taken away. This is true even when they are not convicted.
  • According to a 2010 Human Rights Watch report, for 72.3 percent of misdemeanor cases in New York, bail was set at  $1,000 or less and still, defendants could not pay the bail amount.

To this end, M4BL and BLM were part of the first Mama’s Day Bail Out in 2017, raising funds for women who could not afford to pay their bail. Half a million dollars was raised to pay bail in a total of 18 cities. The groups focused on black women since that demographic is the predominant caretaker in black families nationally.

Watch | National Mamas Bail Out Day Recap

In the words of Atlanta organizer Mary Hooks:

The term ‘mama,’ as it’s used by the National Black Mamas Bail Out Day campaign, is broadly defined to include not just women with biological children, but all women—including trans women—who are linchpins for their families and neighborhoods. It’s about knowing and naming that black women play such a critical role in our communities.”

Although the national Bail Out The People Movement — which says it was founded in 2008 “to oppose the trillion dollar bank bailout and demand that the people get bailed out instead” — predates both the M4BL and BLM, much of the heightened visibility of the movement to end cash-money bail can be directly traced to the work of the latter two organizations.


A very personal and tragic story of the bail system’s toll

The push for reform also was given momentum, and a tragic face, by the heartbreaking story of Kalief Browder. Browder was 16 years old in 2010 when he was arrested for stealing a backpack and sent to New York’s Riker’s Island. Although Browder maintained his innocence and his case was eventually dismissed due to lack of evidence, the teen would first languish in the notorious jail for three years because his family could not afford his $3,000 bail amount. Brutalized by both inmates and guards, and subjected to solitary confinement, Browder was finally released in 2013 and committed suicide in May of 2015.

Rap artist Jay-Z, who has donated to many of the organizations that make up the Movement for Black Lives in the past, was so moved by Browder’s story that he produced “TIME: The Kalief Browder Story,” a six-part series for Netflix, which aired in January of 2017. He also wrote about the exploitation inherent in the bail system and pledged support for a Father’s Day Bail-Out in June of 2017.

Watch | TIME: The Kalief Browder Story Trailer

Top photo | Inmates from Sacramento County await processing after arriving at the Deuel Vocational Institution in Tracy, Calif. (AP Photo)

Thandisizwe Chimurenga is an award-winning, freelance journalist based in Los Angeles, California. She is a staff writer for MintPress News, Daily Kos and co-hosts a weekly, morning drive-time public affairs/news show on the Pacifica Radio network. She is the author of No Doubt: The Murder(s) of Oscar Grant and Reparations … Not Yet: A Case for Reparations and Why We Must Wait; she is also a contributor to several social justice anthologies.

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