Tony Peace was incarcerated in Leon County Detention Facility in Tallahassee, Florida, for two months with no hope of making his $2,500 bail. He had no interest in taking a plea deal either—for a grand theft auto charge he says he did not commit—and was surrounded by thousands of people like him, waiting for their trials in the midst of surging COVID-19 cases, with no end in sight. His conditions worsened in December, when he suffered an injury to his thumb while working in the kitchen and his supervisor told him to use a meat cutter to chop carrots en masse instead of the standard knife. In an instant, his whole thumb was in the meat cutter. He was rushed to the hospital, but they refused to properly treat him and cauterize the wound, leaving him with a bleeding thumb for days and vulnerable to infection. Peace filed a lawsuit against the jail and three days later, his public defender put him in touch with Hannah Schwadron, an organizer with Tallahassee Bail Fund. She told him his entire bail would be paid for and he would be free to go home to spend the holidays with his aunt and cousins. He was released Dec. 19.
“When they told me, ‘pack your stuff, you’re getting out,’ it was a mind-blowing experience,” says Peace. “My family was mourning that I wouldn’t get out before Christmas, and it happened. It was right on time.”
Community bail funds like Tallahassee Bail Fund are raising money to get incarcerated people home for the holidays. There are nearly half a million people in the U.S. currently detained while awaiting trial who are still legally innocent; many of them are jailed simply because they can’t afford cash bail. The median bail bond for a felony was $10,000 in 2009—$11,048 in 2015 dollars if the average stayed the same—and the average yearly income of a man who couldn’t afford bail was about $15,500 and $11,000 for women in 2015. Advocates say cash bail could be a sentencing in itself, and lead to perpetual cycles of debt and incarceration. With the help of community bail funds across the country, incarcerated people are able to return home and await their trial with the support of their community. While states like Pennsylvania, Texas, and Indiana are passing or have passed legislation to limit bail funds, organizers are still working to end pretrial detention and get people out of jails.
When the COVID-19 pandemic began in 2020, a group of five organizers along with Paula Hill, a formerly incarcerated person and organizer with the Tallahassee Bail Fund, realized people were going to be “stockpiled” in Tallahassee jails and took action to help get people out. The group formed the Tallahassee Bail Fund to address this issue and raise money from the community to get people home. Now, they are hosting a holiday bail out for the second year in a row to bring hope to incarcerated people when they need it the most.
“Imagine that the holidays are approaching and you have no idea if you will be able to see your family,” Hill said. “People want to be home with their families during the holidays.”
The Tallahassee Bail Fund also offers aftercare services upon release to help people reenter their community and create a network for mutual aid. When Hill was released from the department of corrections four years ago, she worked with Ready4work, a reentry program in Tallahassee that provides job training and placement services to recently released incarcerated people. Hill hopes to bring that same level of support and care to her work with the Tallahassee Bail Fund.
“The bail fund’s main goal is to get people free and help them stay free,” she says. “I have a strong family that stood behind me and a lot of people don’t have that. So if they have organizations like a Tallahassee Bail Fund pulling for them, and other groups that can help empower them to stay free, then that’s what’s needed.”
In October of this year, there were 1,436 people in pretrial detention across Tallahassee’s four counties. Bail essentially acts as an insurance that the defendant will show up in court for any and all appearances. Anyone who is not considered a flight risk, is a repeat offender, or considered dangerous to society is eligible to be bailed out. The Tallahassee Bail Fund takes recommendations from the public defender’s office. According to Hill, the Tallahassee Bail Fund interviews each person before being bailed out so they can best address their needs upon being released. Since the start of December, the Tallahassee Bail Fund has been able to bail out one person from Leon County, and hopes to continue reuniting more families before the end of the year.
Community bail funds grew in popularity after activists were arrested during 2020’s protests of police brutality, and now state and local governments are attempting to pass legislation that would limit and undermine the work bail funds do.
The Pennsylvania House of Representatives passed a bill last month that would require anyone that pays bail for more than three individuals over the course of 30 days to be a licensed bail bondsman. The law would redefine “bail bondsman” in a way that would require the community bail funds, and even church groups, to obtain a license from the state Insurance Department requiring a $125 application fee and approval from the local district attorney, pass a criminal and credit background check, and maintain an office in the county in which the bail fund operates. These requirements would put many bail fund community organizers out of work, and force the funds to close shop, since many are staffed by formerly incarcerated people, and may not be able to afford paying to maintain a physical office.
“If the law passes, it would either shutter bail funds, or make us officially part of the system,” says Candace McKinley, lead organizer with the Philadelphia Community Bail Fund.
McKinley explains that as abolitionists working to end the system of mass incarceration and pretrial detention, their work stands in opposition to district attorneys. She foresees having to receive a letter of recommendation from the district attorney in order to bail out individuals, which would be a “big barrier.”
“We want to create something new that serves our communities,” McKinley said. “How can we get closer to that goal? How can we do this work in a smart way, while we’re helping to liberate our neighbors in the meantime, how can we actually get closer to our goal to end cash bail?”
The Philadelphia Community Bail Fund has bailed out about 480 people since the start of COVID-19, spending about $4 million on bail. Their work, like other bail funds, serves as an alternative to bail bond companies, which charge non-refundable fees to guarantee bail to the court. For many incarcerated people who cannot pay the fees, they put their house and other possessions for collateral, leaving them in debt and long-term obligations to the bail bondsmen.
“It does a disservice to justice,” says McKinley. “It’s not really about keeping the community safe. It’s just a way that gets people into this cycle of poverty and state supervision.”
Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf has said he opposes the bill, which will be up for vote in the Republican-controlled State Senate. McKinley says she is focused on pushing state senators to look at the issue more critically and vote no.
In the meantime, bail fund organizers hope people will continue supporting their local bail fund and advocating for legislation to end pretrial detention and cash bail. Peace plans on organizing with Tallahassee Bail Fund to help bail out more people and work to empower his community.