End Cash Bail: A town hall meeting
When we arrived at the neighborhood rec center for the town hall meeting, almost all the seats were already filled. More and more chairs were brought in to accommodate the growing crowd, and still people were left standing. Clearly the topic of cash bail hits a nerve in this neighborhood.
The town meeting was hosted by two progressive-minded city and state legislators. They had invited our new District Attorney, the head of the Defenders Association, a Mayor’s representative on criminal justice reform, and representatives of several community organizations that are working to end cash bail.
The feisty determination of both the new DA and the Public Defender to change the system was heartening. I kept being surprised at how neither of them (a white man and a black woman) sounded like politicians or bureaucrats; it was more like they were zealots on a common mission.
The crowd was certainly with them, ready to be led and ready to pull them ahead even faster and farther. It was this crowd—and my part in it—that really caught my attention. I’m still puzzling over how I could have remained so deeply ignorant of the impact of this issue for so long. I remember disagreeing with the policies of an earlier DA with a reputation for being “tough on crime”, but now I was hearing from a mother in the row directly behind us about her son who was locked up at age 15 by this DA many years ago and has been in jail ever since. She is my neighbor. How could I be so insulated from her pain?
In this room, only a mile from home, I was finally experiencing the raw reality of the weight of mass incarceration in my community. It was the difference between having information about wrongs and being witness to them. Three mothers spoke, clearly in a never-ending and passionate quest for justice for their sons. How had I failed to be under the weight of this injustice, failed to take into my heart how families are still being ripped apart by a system that started with slavery and morphed almost seamlessly into mass incarceration?
I remember the shock of learning several years ago how towns like Ferguson, Missouri fill their coffers by extorting traffic fines from their minority neighborhoods. I am embarrassed that I have only recently educated myself on cash bail—a system where the innocent poor can languish in jail for months waiting for trial while the guilty rich simply buy their freedom. But this evening we learned together about another layer of injustice; we learned that 30% of all posted bail is kept by the city—whether the person is taken to trial, proved innocent or not.
I was present as the reality of this outrage took shape and gained weight before our eyes: the meager resources of those who have the least are being pillaged to support the system that oppresses them.
We didn’t know. Even the City Councilman, a guy who said he might have ended up in jail himself if somebody hadn’t offered him another path, didn’t know. How could we not know these things? What forces have allowed us to accept such a system as inevitable? Are those who have been victimized by it too inured to oppression and injustice to speak up? Are those who haven’t been personally touched by its horrors too buffered from inconvenient truths, or too invested in not knowing?
Learning and knowing hard things can be painful. But we don’t have to learn or know them, or act on what we have learned, alone. And choosing to not know is way worse. The opportunity to be with my neighbors as we looked squarely at this system together, and united in an intention to change it, was a gift.
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