“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free.”
Luke 4:18 (NRSV)
With the 223rd General Assembly quickly approaching, the “Hands and Feet” of the Church are working with local leadership in St. Louis to call attention to the injustice of our cash bail system and bail people out of jail. Every night, hundreds of thousands of people remain incarcerated simply because they do not have the money to pay for their freedom, making county jails serve the function of a modern-day debtors prison. Putting a price tag on freedom tears apart lives, destabilizes families and communities, and upends the presumption of innocence. At the 223rd General Assembly, Presbyterians from around the country will support local leadership in their long-term struggle to re-establish the presumption of pre-trial innocence in St. Louis and learn how take part in community organizing once they return home.
This work will be done through the “Hands & Feet” initiative, which was started by Stated Clerk Rev. Dr. J Herbert Nelson to highlight and strengthen local and national efforts by the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and facilitate change to communicate God’s love. The project builds upon the grassroots, community work that congregations, mid councils, and the national office are already engaged with and culminates with the 223rd General Assembly. Rev. Nelson’s goal is that GA not “simply another convention that comes to town, meets and spends some money, and then leaves without engaging the people and communities.” To make good on that vision, GA attendees must engage deeply with the organizing and advocacy work already alive in the host presbytery. Click HERE to donate to the bail fund now!
For the past three years, members of Giddings-Lovejoy Presbytery have supported the moral and political project of paying bail for people who are imprisoned before their trials. Everyday an average of 700,000 people are condemned to local jails and separated from their families. A majority of them are there simply because they cannot afford to pay bail, and currently bail serves as both a punishment and a method of coercion to plead guilty. Nationwide, 62 percent of people in jail are not serving time, they’re waiting for justice to be served in cases that typically involve nonviolent charges. In one county jail over the course of a week, fully a third of people admitted were charged with traffic violations. America spends an estimated $22.2 billion annually to detain people in jails.
Pre-trial incarceration has catastrophic impacts on families and communities. Even a few days in jail can ruin a person’s life. They may lose their job, their family may lose housing and some even lose their children. Bail hits the poor especially hard, they may not have the $1,000 or even $100 to pay a bondsman to get out of jail, and so they will remain there for weeks or months while supposedly being presumed innocent. Pre-trial incarceration also has outsized impacts on communities of color. Black people are over two times more likely to be arrested and once arrested are twice as likely to be jailed before trial. Our LBGTQ and gender nonconforming family are arrested and jailed at even more alarming rates, and once in jail are significantly more likely to be sexually and physically abused. Sandra Bland, whose mourned around the country as a victim of police misconduct and brutality, and whose death sparked another wave of #BlackLivesMatter protests, died in part because of the system of cash bail. Bland was held in the Waller County, Texas, jail because she could not afford the $500 price tag placed on her freedom. On July 13, 2015, she was found hanging in her jail cell under suspicious circumstances. She was 28 years old.
This is not a new issue for Presbyterians to address. The 127th General Minutes of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America read: “Upon the almost universal custom of imprisoning trivial offenders because of their inability to pay fines, the Committee regard(s) the system as intolerable and as a cruel discrimination against the poor and helpless… Some more reasonable and equitable method of dealing with such offenders should be devised…” In the 2003 “Resolution Calling for the Abolition of For-Profit Private Prisons,” the 215th General Assembly approved language that further described the need for a justice system that knows mercy:
“The ultimate goal of incarceration should NOT be vengeance, retribution, or punishment for punishment’s sake. In Matthew 5:38, Jesus refutes the idea of vengeance for Christians and overturns the law of “an eye for an eye.” Not only Scripture but also experiences have shown that a vengeful justice system is counterproductive. Such a system intensifies antisocial attitudes and behavior on the part not only of those who are imprisoned but also of all of us who participate in that process. Such a dynamic increases rather than diminishes threats to the peace and order of society.”
Over the past several years, organizations like SONG, the National Bail Out, and the Movement for Black Lives have been planning bail out actions, in which they pay bail for people incarcerated pre-trial in local jails, as part growing momentum to end the practice of money bail in the US, and by extension end the system of mass incarceration. Pre-trial detention is a cornerstone of the ballooning prison population; over the 15 years, increases in pretrial detention accounted for 99% of all jail growth. Those detained ahead of trial are four times more likely to receive a jail sentence than those at liberty, and their average jail sentences are three times longer. Those detained are also significantly more likely to be re-arrested after their lives have been destabilized by a jail stay. But the good news is that, as a result of organizing, municipalities around the country including Atlanta, Washington DC, and Philadelphia have already moved to end money bail and institute alternatives. Ending cash bail is a key building block to enacting mass de-carceration and Presbyterians have an important role to play to support the movement.
On Tuesday, June 19th, Presbyterians will take to the streets in St. Louis to march to City Hall and call attention to the injustice of the cash bail system. In keeping with the “Hands and Feet” ethic to strengthen and respect local work (not bring answers from the outside) we will support our partners on the ground who organize #BeyondBailsSTL, which is a collaboration of the St. Louis Action Council, The Bail Project, Arch City Defenders, Decarcerate STL, and Faith for Justice. Read more about the history of the work in St. Louis HERE. The Co-Moderators of GA222, the Rev. Denise Anderson and the Rev. Jan Edmiston, and the Committee on the Office of the General Assembly have designated the offering from the Opening Worship at GA223 to go towards a bail out action. This will be an Assembly unlike any other as our presence in the city will build the power of community and God to set free those who are incarcerated, challenge the criminalization of poverty, and make families and communities whole.
Next Steps: Raise your voice and join the movement!
- Read the PC(USA) Bail Out Curriculum and share it with your community
- Donate to the bail out action
- March with us on Tuesday the 19th at 3:00 p.m., following local St. Louis leadership, to call attention to the injustice of our cash bail system
- Take it home, read the guide from the National Bail Out and join or start Bail Out activities in your community