June 5, 2018
Money shouldn’t buy justice, however the way the system of cash bail currently works in this country, low-income people and people of color disproportionately remain in jail while the wealthy buy their liberty. This is a practice that should have been relegated to the history books. In 1833 the United States formally abolished the incarceration of people for the failure to pay off debts as an ethical and moral failure of our criminal justice system. In 1915 the 115th GA condemned the practice of debtor’s prison. Then again in 1983, the Supreme Court ruled that incarcerating a person for debts was unconstitutional under the Fourteenth Amendments’ Equal Protection Clause. But recently the term “debtor’s prison” has come back into use as we have returned to the practice of imprisoning poor persons for non-payment of fines or fees and those who cannot afford cash bail. This vicious cycle of arrest and incarceration results in mounting fines, job loss, lost custody of children, incarceration of the innocent and costly fees.
Even more intolerable is that this incarceration is not coincidental but instead can be an intentional policy on the part of cities in collaboration with police departments to increase municipal revenue. In 2015 the Justice Department documented how the Ferguson (MO) Police Department pursued arrests in enforcement of the “city’s focus on revenue rather than… public safety needs”. Specific cases in states such as Arkansas, California, Colorado, Georgia, Louisiana, Maine, Michigan, Mississippi, Nebraska, Ohio, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Washington have been documented by the ACLU.
Unaffordable cash bail is one of the largest drivers of the mass incarceration epidemic in the U.S. Over the last 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.
This is immoral, unethical and self-destructive to any society and the church must become involved to “let the oppressed go free” (Luke 4:18 NRSV). Organizers have already won an end to cash bail in Washington DC, Atlanta, Philadelphia and the state of Alaska. In place of money, cities are developing assessment tools such as algorithms to determine who can be released on their own recognizance. No one should be incarcerated simply because they are poor, we must each be aware of this problem as it affects our local communities and join movements to end the criminalization of poverty!
What has the PC(USA) said about the need for a movement to end cash bail and mass incarceration?
- “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.” “Resolution Calling for the Abolition of For-Profit Private Prisons”. Approved by the 215th General Assembly (2003).
- “Upon the almost universal custom of imprisoning trivial offenders because of their inability to pay fines,… the Committee regard 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…” “Minutes of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America”, Volume 15: Volume 1915. By Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. Proceedings of the 127th General Assembly. January 1915. P. 86. Free Download.
- “Christ paid our debt by active obedience by his own, ‘by the obedience of one shall many be made righteous,’ bought us with his blood,” and delivered us from the debtor’s poverty and from the debtor’s prison.” Differences between Old and New School Presbyterians. By Lewis Cheeseman. June 10, 2005. P. 87.
- “The reconciliation of humankind through Jesus Christ makes it plain that enslaving poverty in a world of abundance is an intolerable violation of God’s good creation. Because Jesus identified himself with the needy and exploited, the cause of the world’s poor is the cause of his disciples. The church cannot condone poverty, whether it is the product of unjust social structures, exploitation of the defenseless, lack of national resources, absence of technological understanding, or rapid expansion of populations. The church calls all people to use their abilities, their possessions, and the fruits of technology as gifts entrusted to them105 by God for the maintenance of their families and the advancement of the common welfare. It encourages those forces in human society that raise hopes for better conditions and provide people with opportunity for a decent living. A church that is indifferent to poverty, or evades responsibility in economic affairs, or is open to one social class only, or expects gratitude for its beneficence makes a mockery of reconciliation and offers no acceptable worship to God.”
– The Confession of 1967 (Inclusive Language Version), Book of Confessions, 9.46
What is the history?
Background on the Movement to End Money Bail and the Criminalization of Poverty:
- “America Is Waking Up to the Injustice of Cash Bail: Seventy percent of people in jail haven’t been convicted of a crime. They just can’t afford bail.” By Bryce Covert. OCTOBER 19, 2017. (https://www.thenation.com/article/america-is-waking-up-to-the-injustice-of-cash-bail/)
- “Activists are Bailing Out Incarcerated Black Moms for Mother’s Day” by Lily Workneh. May 15, 2017. https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/activists-are-bailing-out-incarcerated-black-moms-for-mothers-day_us_591344e3e4b05e1ca2040094
- ArchCity Defenders and St. Louis Action Council Partner in National Black Mama’s Bail Out Day http://www.archcitydefenders.org/2017/05/08/archcity-defenders-and-st-louis-action-council-partner-in-national-mamas-bail-out-day/
- “In 2017, Its Still A Crime to Be Poor” by Peter Edelman. The Nation. November 3, 2017. https://www.thenation.com/article/the-price-of-justice/
- Hunger and Mass Incarceration resources from Bread for the World: http://www.bread.org/library/hunger-and-mass-incarceration
Stories from the Movement to End Money Bail:
- “A Labor of Love: Black Mammas Bail Out and Reflection“, Southerners On New Ground
- New Orleans
- “New Orleans’ Great Bail Reform Experiment”. By Aviva Shen. Oct 19, 2017.
Take it Home: Practical How To Guides to participate in the movement
- Do a showing of Time: The Kalief BrowderStory. Here is the trailer, the full documentary is available on Netflix. Time: The Kalief Browder Story is a six-episode American documentary television miniseries that broadcast on Spike beginning March 1, 2017. The documentary recounts the story of Kalief Browder, a Bronx high school student who was imprisoned for three years, two of them in solitary confinement on Rikers Island without being convicted of a crime.
- Read the guide from the National Bail Out and join or start Bail Out activities inyour community
- Become a Grassroots Advocacy Coordinator with the Office of Public Witness and build skills to take part in local and national advocacy and organizing
- Join your local faith grassroots organizing affiliate and work on local issues to end the criminalization of poverty.
- Direct Action and Research Training Center(DART): 21 organizations in eight states, primarily in the Midwest and Florida, based in Miami.
- Gamaliel Foundation: 44 affiliates and seven state offices in 17 states, based in Chicago.
- Industrial Areas Foundation(IAF): 57 affiliates in 23 states, based in Chicago.
- People Improving Communities through Organizing(PICO): 44 federations and eight statewide networks in 17 states, based in Oakland, California. Also works in rural areas.
- Intervalley Project: 6 affiliates in New England, based in Newton, Massachusetts.
- Interfaith Power and Light (IPL), based in San Francisco.