Community bail funds, like the Safety and Freedom Fund in New Orleans, are a new and necessary fixture in the bail reform landscape. Community bail funds represent the power citizens have to save one another from an unjust, unfair and unequal money bail system right now.
Community bail funds are operating around the country, in places like New York City, Philadelphia, Chicago, Seattle, Nashville, Tucson and Dallas. These funds are founded on two common principles. One, money bail does not keep us safe. Two, the bail system around the country breeds and lives upon injustice, unfairness and inequity.
Money bail does not make us safer; take the following example. Two people are booked into the jail on the same violent charge. One posts a $1 million bond and gets out. The other is too poor for a $100,000 bond. We are not safer because the violent millionaire bonded out. That is status quo. At the same time, look at the performance of the Freedom Fund. Ninety-two percent of the people helped by the fund appear in court, and 63 percent of the people they help end up with their cases refused or dismissed — outperforming the DA’s own 15 percent global dismissal rate. By the DA’s own standards, this indicates they are wisely investing in the lowest risk detainees. The Freedom Fund, like other funds around the country, maintain public safety while saving taxpayers money and saving poor communities from the stress that comes with the absence of family and neighbors.
To most, the unfairness and inequity is clear. According to the Vera Institute of Justice in New Orleans, 31 percent of the men and women charged with felonies, but not released pretrial, were released as soon as their cases were closed (refused, dismissed, sentenced to time served, or sentenced to a suspended sentence/probation). That is, people were detained because they were poor and not guilty, but released as soon as they were found guilty or their cases dismissed. Put another way, advocates of the status quo believe poor people in New Orleans have a right to jail, not bail. It is not news when someone with money bails out, but it becomes an investigative series when community comes together to bail out poor people.
Moreover, the racial disparities are stark. African Americans pay 84 percent of all bail premiums and fees in New Orleans, and according to city data, African Americans stay in jail twice as long as white people with the same charges. This suggests money bail produces racially discriminatory detention.
Perhaps the most egregious injustice is how money bail forces poor people and people of color to plead guilty just to get out of jail. According to Vera, people released pretrial on felony cases were more than twice as likely to have their cases refused when compared to those detained. One reason is people plead guilty early to get out of jail — unwilling or too scared to wait for a case refusal, dismissal or a not guilty.
Community bail funds draw the same tired criticism no matter the jurisdiction. Critics claim they endanger public safety and are less efficient in getting people to show for court. The problem is critics can’t prove the existing system works any better. To the contrary, the Freedom Fund out-performs status quo with less collateral damage to the lives of poor people and people of color.
New Orleans needs more community to come together to operate more community bail funds as a counterbalance to a money bail system that siphons wealth away from people and communities who cannot afford to give away any resources. At bottom, critics of bail funds are the enemies of justice, fairness and equity. Invoking “public safety” as a dog whistle tactic to demonize and deny poor people and people of color access to justice. This will fail in New Orleans, just like it is failing around the country. Our community won’t allow it.
Derwyn Bunton is the Chief Defender of Orleans Parish. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.