Danielle Squillant: Bail is a form of punishment

  • Entrance to the Hampshire County Jail and House of Correction in Northampton. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Published: 9/29/2023 4:29:03 PM
Modified: 9/29/2023 4:28:14 PM

News went viral on Sept. 5 that 61 people were being indicted by Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr on racketeering charges for their involvement in the Stop Cop City campaign. This move by the state is both an effort to deter activists from continuing their organizing efforts to prevent the destruction of the Weelaunee Forest and the construction of a cop training facility, as well as an attack on community bail funds and the financial support they provide to protesters.

Included in this indictment were Marlon Kautz, Adele Maclean, and Savannah Patterson — the three organizers with the Atlanta Solidarity Fund who were arrested in May on bogus charges of charity fraud and money laundering. The fund prioritizes bail support for protesters in solidarity with popular movements.

Community bail funds, like the Atlanta Solidarity Fund, provide a vital service to people detained before trial, meaning they have been arrested and charged with a crime but not convicted of it. Under the law, then, they are legally innocent, yet they are being incarcerated in jails. Many people remain in pretrial detention because they cannot afford to pay money bail.

In Massachusetts, the purpose of bail is to ensure that a person attends their court date. The state claims that “bail isn’t a form of punishment,” yet people who cannot afford bail end up being detained for days, even months, putting them at risk of losing their jobs, housing, and disrupting their family life. According to research from the Prison Policy Initiative, people held before trial are more likely to plead guilty, be found guilty, and more likely to have longer sentences if incarcerated. How does this not constitute a punishment?

In response to this injustice, a handful of activists came together to form the Decarcerate WMass Bailout Project. We are a volunteer-run, revolving-door bail fund that posts bail for people held in Franklin and Hampshire County jail up to $1,500, irrespective of their charges. If the person we bail out appears in court, we recover the bail money and recycle it back into the fund.

Sometimes people don’t make their court date, and why they don’t varies from person to person. One young man we bailed out for $300 was homeless when released from jail, so his mail was going to an organization he received services from. The court mailed a letter reminding him of his court date, but he didn’t receive the letter until it had already passed. Some people miss court because they can’t get the day off work or don’t have child care or transportation.

We believe that people should not be detained pretrial and remain behind bars because they can’t afford to pay bail, especially when evidence exists that court reminder systems are just as effective.

Releasing people before trial does not harm public safety, but detaining people pretrial can expose someone to premature death. According to a project by Reuters on deaths in jails, 185 people died in the 10 Massachusetts jails surveyed between 2009 and 2019, mostly from illness or suicide. The Bureau of Justice Statistics found that between 2000 and 2018, the median time served for people who died in jail from drug/alcohol intoxication was one day, and it was nine days for people who died from suicide.

We stand in solidarity with the Atlanta Solidarity Fund and with community bail funds across the country that provide a necessary service to people so they can avoid being detained before trial. The indictments are an extreme example of state repression of a bail fund, but it is part of a larger backlash against funds that began after the George Floyd uprising. As long as states hold people pretrial on bail, bail funds will exist to ensure that people aren’t punished because they can’t afford their freedom.

Danielle Squillante lives in Northampton and is writing on behalf of the Decarcerate WMass Bailout Project.


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