Community Bail Funds & the Fight for Freedom
In the fight to abolish money bail and pretrial detention, community bail funds can — and must — play a dual role. We pay bail to secure the freedom of people who otherwise could not afford it and we use the tactic of bail payment to fight for a world in which we don’t have to rely on nonprofits to guarantee the presumption of innocence. Recent legislative changes to the New York State bail statute no longer make this possible for the Brooklyn Community Bail Fund. We believe that revolving bail funds in New York may now be used to perpetuate money bail. For this reason, at the end of 2019, we will cease operating as a revolving bail fund[i] in the criminal legal system and will focus our efforts in areas where we can continue to contribute to systemic change.
Dismantling a system requires that we explicitly be in tension with it. For five years our approach was successful. The system required money in exchange for freedom and we paid it to free 4,700 people. We repeatedly fought back against every attempt to institutionalize us, rejecting system actors’ offers to make our job as a bail fund easier as a way of appeasing us. We were insistent that bail funds could not be part of a long-term decarceral strategy, but rather needed to be a temporary intervention.
What has changed? This spring, a powerful coalition helped achieve bail reform legislation that will greatly reduce the number of people devastated by pretrial jailing. However, the legislation also leaves behind thousands of people who will continue to be subject to money bail and pretrial detention. In the final negotiations, when it became clear that New York’s elected officials would fail to live up to their promise to end money bail completely, the legislature turned to bail funds. In the following months, they passed an expansion of the Charitable Bail Organizations Act.[ii] Bail funds became an escape hatch for a political system that lacked the courage to end money bail.
But we cannot solve the devastation wrought by money bail through individual bail payments. Bail jails millions of people across the country each year; tens of thousands in New York alone. Our work is meant to demonstrate that we must abolish money bail, not make bail funds bigger. Continuing to pay bail at this point would amount to acquiescence to the continued existence of money bail. We would effectively be transformed into a permanent fixture of the system which we have fought so tirelessly to dismantle. It is not difficult to imagine future legislative battles focusing on expanding the reach of bail funds to cover exceptions and carve-outs rather than eliminating money bail and pretrial detention entirely.
As the largest community bail fund in the country, we feel the duty to reject half measures and false compromises that would require us to prop up an unjust system. We cannot continue operating as a revolving bail fund if we are to be the state’s band- aid. We would no longer be a community bail fund fighting for the end of pretrial detention if we were to be an extension of the state.
So what’s next for the Brooklyn Community Bail Fund? We see this year’s bail reform legislation as a beginning, not the end. We will continue to fight with our allies for transformative change that brings a true end to money bail and pretrial detention in New York. As the bail statute is implemented, we will partner with our allies to maximize decarceral outcomes and oppose punitive supervision and mass-surveillance. We will fight to ensure that prosecutors and fear-mongering politicians do not roll back what we have won so far. We will continue to support new strategic interventions that take on the unjust system of money bail and pretrial detention in New York, as part of a larger movement and in tension with systems that necessitate the existence of bail funds in the first place. And we will continue standing in active opposition to the deportation and detention regime by organizing with grassroots partners locally and nationally to secure the freedom of immigrants through our newly launched program, the New York Immigrant Freedom Fund.
While it is clear to us that new tactics are needed in the fight for the abolition of bail and pretrial detention in New York State, we continue to believe in the power of community bail funds to catalyze and effectuate change as long as they are a wrench in the gears, rather than a cog in the machine. We look forward to working with our allies and partners — including the seventy-plus community bail funds across the country — as we ensure that our movement’s tactics remain powerful and are prepared to fight back when the system attempts to co-opt them.
Over the past five years, we at the Brooklyn Community Bail Fund have been proud to fight alongside our partners for the abolition of money bail and pretrial detention as part of a larger movement for dignity and justice and with the recognition that pretrial detention perpetuates, rather than addresses, harm. While non-profits often march on regardless of changing circumstances and need, we hope to prioritize our collective vision for a just world, rather than commit to one particular tactic in perpetuity. We are grateful to all of our allies and partners in this fight, and to the organizers and advocates from whom we have learned so much and on whose shoulders we stand. Together — as an agile and irrepressible movement — we will abolish state-sanctioned systems of oppression, whether through money bail and pretrial jailing or immigration detention.
[i] In a revolving bail fund, we pool money to pay bail for fellow New Yorkers. As their cases are resolved, the bail we paid revolves back to the Fund. The goal is a continuous, revolving pool of money to pay bail. In this way, revolving bail funds are distinct from one off bail outs in which resources are pooled to pay bail for a distinct group of people, but are not in continuous operation.
[ii] Passed in New York State in 2012, the Charitable Bail Organizations Act restricted bail funds to paying bail only on misdemeanor charges where bail was set at less than $2,000. New York is the only state that has a law that explicitly calls for and regulates bail funds. The new legislation passed in 2019 expanded the reach of bail funds to all charges where bail is set up to $10,000.