Let Our People Go

In Cook County, freedom is based on wealth. Ninety percent of people detained in Cook County Jail are there pretrial, meaning they haven’t been convicted of any crimes. Nearly half of the people detained cannot afford to pay their money bail, which is a guarantee a judge can require to be paid in order to leave jail while a case is pending.

In our system, if you can purchase your freedom you walk free. If not, you’re stuck behind bars.

Theoretically, bail is to ensure a defendant returns to court. But, in fact, an individual’s wealth does not determine how likely he or she is to appear in court. Studies have repeatedly shown that alternatives to cash bail can be equally effective. In places like Washington D.C. and Colorado, courts are successfully not relying on money bail and defendants are still returning to appear in court at high rates.

Detaining accused people before their trial has devastating and long lasting effects. People who are detained pretrial are more likely to be convicted and receive longer sentences. By being detained, not only is their presumption of innocence diminished, but they are less able to participate in their defense and access their counsel. Bail, therefore, is a punishment for legally innocent people; it coerces guilty pleas and leads to the mass detention of people who have not been convicted.

Additionally, the horrific time wasted in jail waiting for a trial results in substantial hardships that are difficult to recover from, like losing a job, which means losing the only way you can pay for your home, bills, and support your family. Even brief separation from family, friends, and community can cause strain and loss of custody of children.

Not surprisingly, these negative consequences have a disproportionate impact on Black and Latinx people, who generally receive higher bonds and are less likely to be able to post bail than white people.

James Williams Jr.’s experience is one example of the common consequences of our cash bail system. He was arrested a few days before Thanksgiving by an undercover Chicago police officer in the West Englewood neighborhood.

Low-level drug offenders in Cook County are typically freed on bail without posting cash, but in court the next day, a judge ordered Williams held on $10,000 bail. That meant he needed to come up with $1,000 cash to win his freedom. He was detained for over a year, pretrial, meaning without a conviction. During his year behind bars, Williams lost his job and his car, missed the birth of his son, and his sister passed away. All of this for the charge of selling $40 worth of cocaine. Unfortunately, this story is far from unique. In fact, many accused people spend months and sometimes years being imprisoned before their trial.

This was supposed to change last September when Cook County Chief Judge Timothy Evans issued a landmark order called General Order 18.8A. This order clearly stated that money bonds should be set in amounts that people can afford to pay. And yet, from November 2017 to June of this year, the monthly rate of unaffordable money bonds has tripled from 9% to 29%. Almost one year later, around 2,500 people are still being incarcerated simply because they cannot afford to pay their bail.

Poverty is treated as a crime in this country. Never should your bank account determine whether you’ll be able to go home, see your family or keep your job. But that’s exactly what the bail system is doing, and it’s feeding a mass incarceration system that’s unmatched by any other country in the world.

Money bail is one of the reasons the United States incarcerates more people than any country on earth. Across the country, on any given day, nearly half a million people are currently sitting in jail because they cannot afford bail.

The burden also falls on taxpayers, who pay the high costs that result from an inflated prison population. It costs $143 a day to house a pretrial detainee in Cook County. Indeed, Cook County increasingly spends $300 million annually on the jail. Much of this money is spent detaining pretrial defendants. Given that a majority of pretrial detainees are accused of nonviolent offenses, they pose little to no risk to our community.

If we were to ask today, “What would Jesus do?” In Luke 4:18, Jesus answers us: bring good news to the poor; proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind; and let the oppressed go free.

In this text, Jesus announced a deliverance that was not limited only to Israel. Instead, Jesus delivered God’s promise of liberation for everyone -- all who were poor, captive, and oppressed. Liberation was not to be limited by nationality, religion, race or wealth.

The paradox of the Gospel is that while radical love is for everyone, we constantly limit God’s grace. We have embedded limits to God’s grace throughout our legal system by systematically excluding people from obtaining freedom and justice based on their race. Our nation was built on this principle of denying freedom and justice to people of color, while privileging white people. The money bail system is just one example of this oppression that we must help to end.

Join us in raising our voices together at the Rally to #EndMoneyBail happening on Tuesday, September 18th at 10 am in downtown Chicago. Leaders of the Coalition to End Money Bond and our allies across Cook County are marking the one-year anniversary of General Order 18.8A by calling attention to this unjust system and demanding that we bring our people home! We need people of faith to show up and join our neighbors in calling for the oppressed to be free.

Please also sign the petition that will be sent to all of the stakeholders in Cook County and share it with your friends and neighbors.

There is hope. Earlier this month, a federal judge struck down the money bail system in New Orleans! In a landmark opinion, the court held that the money bail system in New Orleans violates equal protection and due process. The judge also said if the government wants to detain a person before their trial, there must be clear and convincing evidence that pretrial detention is absolutely necessary.

It’s time to let our people go.

Right now we have thousands of people in Cook County who are jailed for one simple reason—they cannot afford to purchase their freedom.

It’s time to put an end to money bail. Let’s bring our people home.

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