Texas community surety funds increase

Last year Pamela Young spent June 15 getting people out of jail. She and other organizers were awaiting the releases in Fort Worth when they heard the sirens. As an ambulance approached, they learned that someone had died in Tarrant County Jail.

“It really brought home how important this job is. It’s a matter, literally, of life and death, getting people out of this cage, ”said Young, a United Fort Worth criminal justice organizer. “It kills them.”

Since then, the Tarrant County Community Bail Fund, which is run by United Fort Worth, has bailed out 29 people. But Young did not forget the group’s first massive bailout or shake the feeling that she might have bailed out the detainee before his death.

In Texas, most people charged with crimes can be released if they provide a sum of money set by a judge as a guarantee that they will appear for trial. If that person cannot pay, they are held in jail until their trial. The deposit is not returned until the case is closed or closed.

Community bond funds provide a monetary bond to those who cannot afford it – not only to give them a fair chance in the criminal justice system, organizers say, but also to reunite them with their families and communities.

Over the past year, sparked by protests over the murder of George Floyd, bond funds have received renewed attention and fundraising. But there was a backlash. Some Texas lawmakers have renewed their efforts to pass legislation to restrict certain types of bond and limit who can be bonded by community bond funds.

Statewide, about 70% detainees have not been convicted of a crime. People in jail often remain detained because they cannot pay bail, according to a 2016 report by the Prison Policy Initiative, a non-partisan, non-profit criminal justice research organization. The deposit can be as low as $ 100 and as high as hundreds of thousands of dollars. Offenses range from violating parole without committing a new crime to murder.

In 2018, a federal judge ruled that Dallas County bail policies were unfair to poor defendants because they ignored ability to pay. This decision was upheld by a federal appeals court in 2020.

“You sit there for months waiting for your trial. It can ricochet into your life, ”said Joe Swanson, a senior community organizer for Faith in Texas, who manages the Luke 4:18 Bail Fund. “Incarceration affects not only this person, but everyone with whom they are deeply connected – their family, their children, their grandchildren, anyone who relies on them. “

Organizations that manage surety funds pay the full amount of a surety deposit in cash, so that individuals do not bear the financial burden of the surety themselves. Funds are an alternative to the for-profit surety industry, where a surety charges and retains a portion of the total amount – often around 10% – to post the surety.

Protests have increased

Surety funds have a long history – from a fund started by the American Civil Liberties Union in the 1920s, to one by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee during the civil rights movement, to one by AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power in the 1980s.

“As long as people were in jail and the bail was used, people collectively found ways to mobilize resources to free other people,” said Pilar Weiss, director of the National Bail Fund Network, which helps and coordinates independent local surety funds.

Pamela Young, standing left, senior criminal justice organizer at United Fort Worth, with other volunteers Cynthia Mancha seated left, Marilyn Davis, standing right, and Tara Wilson, seated right. United Fort Worth operates the Tarrant County Community Bail Fund. (Robert W. Hart / Special Contributor)(Robert W. Hart / Special Contributor)

Last summer, surety funds received more than $ 90 million in donations. Some of these donations were made by nonprofit organizations. For example, United Fort Worth received $ 20,000 from partnership between Colin Kaepernick’s Know Your Rights camp and Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights. But many of these donations came from members of the community. The fund has raised over $ 50,000 in individual – and often recurring – donations.

Some community bond funds began posting bail for remand prisoners when Governor Greg Abbott resisted early releases as COVID-19 spread through prisons and prisons. Other funds started due to protests last summer and continued to bail out anyone in pre-trial detention.

The Denton Bail Fund, for example, raised over $ 25,000 and bailed out 26 people. Organizer Cindy Spoon said the bailouts help community members avoid the choice between posting bail and shopping for groceries – or not posting bail and losing their jobs in prison.

“When I post a bond for someone, I don’t see it as an act of charity, but as a material way of trying to resist the cash bond system,” Spoon said.

Bail reform

This work may face legislative repercussions. In the last regular session, Republicans gave priority Bill House 20, a comprehensive bail reform bill that would have prevented “bail charities” from posting bail to people accused or already convicted of a violent crime.

HB 20 also reportedly required community bond funds to report their beneficiaries to local sheriffs. These restrictions did not apply to organizations and religious groups that posted bail for less than three people every six months.

“This new reporting system aims to increase both transparency and accountability, which is always a good thing in the area of ​​criminal justice,” Senator Joan Huffman (R-Houston) said in a press release. when she introduced Senate Bill 21, the Senate. HB 20 version.

Huffman’s office did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

But in April she said The Texas Tribune“The purpose of this language is to collect information that would allow us to better understand how these organizations work and to ensure that they do not bail out violent criminals or mislead donors.” “

“This is an extraordinary extension of pre-trial detention,” said Gabriela Barahona, program associate at the Texas Jail Project, which manages a bail fund in Tyler. “Taking away the ability of a judge or magistrate or the ability of a community bond fund to remove someone from a prison environment erodes the idea that you are presumed innocent. “

Dalila Reynoso, left, community organizer with the Texas Jail Project, and Glenn Hayes, right, after Hayes was bailed out from Smith County jail.  The Texas Jail Project manages a bond fund in Tyler.
Dalila Reynoso, left, community organizer with the Texas Jail Project, and Glenn Hayes, right, after Hayes was bailed out from Smith County jail. The Texas Jail Project manages a bond fund in Tyler.

Under the bill, the Texas Jail Project would not have been able to post bail for Glenn Hayes. The 20-year-old was walking through Tyler on his way home from Dallas, Louisiana, when he was charged with criminal possession of a controlled substance of less than one gram.

He couldn’t pay the $ 1,500 bail, so he spent 115 days in Smith County Jail. “I really felt abandoned,” he said. “Anybody [in the jail] really helped me.

After the Texas Jail Project bailed out Hayes, he returned to Texas in March – this time, to testify in Austin before the Senate Jurisprudence Committee against SB 21.

HB 20 failed in the ordinary session, but Abbott tweeted on May 30 this reform of bail “must be adopted” at the extraordinary session, which was set for July 8.

This left community bond funds brace for yet another legislative fight, but it also made it clear that their work is meant to be temporary – until the bond and pre-trial detention no longer exists.

Hayes said if he had been arrested in Austin or Dallas he would have received a verbal warning or a ticket, instead of being held for almost four months. He is still awaiting trial.

“A lot of people are like me too, with similar cases,” he said. “But they have no help and no one in their corner.”

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