Opinion | The Power of Community Bail Funds

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Once Ms. Clinton was at home, she was given support to help her care for her family and fight the eviction. Like many bail funds and bailouts, SONG has an abolitionist vision of pushing toward a world without prisons by supporting people so they’re safe in their own communities. The group helps people find things that the state should be helping them access instead of criminalizing them: housing, health care, counseling and other basic needs that keep people from being harmed and harming others. Community bail funds are temporary infrastructure, not permanent solutions to the crises of poverty and criminalization.

Ms. Clinton soon went to a strategy meeting at SONG, where she says she was “blown away.” She added, “I never knew there were people taking action in solidarity with people like me.” Bail funds often engage in broader organizing and political work — pressuring district attorneys to stop asking for exorbitant bail, working to pass legislation that would end the use of money bail, pushing for decriminalization of “quality of life” and other offenses, and calling for the redistribution of state resources away from punishment and toward collective care. Ms. Clinton jumped into the work, and she was eventually hired as the regional bailout coordinator. In that role, she pays bail for people and provides supportive services. This year, she launched her own initiative, R.E.S.I.S.T., raising money to buy land on which to build healing, sustainable cooperative housing for formerly incarcerated women.

The ferocity of the backlash against this work shows its power. It is not just the media and the Trump campaign; many politicians are pushing back against the broader message that bail funds lay out. In Massachusetts, politicians from all corners are attacking: the Boston police commissioner, William Gross, declared the Massachusetts Bail Fund a “detriment to the community”; the state’s attorney general, Maura Healy, announced that her office will investigate the fund; and the Boston district attorney, Rachael Rollins, called the bailing out of Shawn McClinton “the act of a coward.”

Conservative news outlets have feigned shock that bail funds are working to release not just protesters, but also ordinary people. They ignore the thousands of people whose stories, whether they are charged with low-level misdemeanors or so-called “violent” felonies, demonstrate how their freedom, in the aggregate, lies on the side of safety.

Think of Michael Penn, 46, whose $35,000 bail was paid by the Massachusetts Bail Fund in July in a felony case alleging gun possession. Mr. Penn will now continue to go to his court dates while living with his mother and sister, and maintaining social distancing measures — something that would be impossible in jail. The truth is, bail funds “literally save people’s lives,” Michael said. “They saved mine.”

Mary Hooks (@MaryHooks) is co-director of Southerners on New Ground. Jocelyn Simonson (@j_simonson) is professor at Brooklyn Law School and on the advisory board of the Community Justice Exchange.

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