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Muslims in the US city of Chicago are helping liberate incarcerated individuals from pre-trial detention this Ramadan.
Believers Bail Out is a programme that encourages Muslims to contribute zakat - a tax on wealth that is a pillar of Islam - towards money bail bonds for jailed pre-trial defendants. The project is just one of several crowdsourced schemes under the #endmoneybail hashtag on social media. The projects are dedicated to securing the release of people languishing in jails because they either cannot pay a full bond to a court or pay a for-profit bail bond provider to remain free in the run-up to a final court date.
About 536,000 people are currently held in pre-trial detention in the United States - a higher figure than the total prison population of most other nations. The median income of pre-trial detainees is $15,109 - but the national median bail bond is around $10,000, according to a 2016 study by the Prison Policy Initiative. Expensive bond judgments mean big business for private bail bonds providers, which back a defendant’s bond obligations to the court in exchange for a non-refundable payment, usually 10 percent of the bond. The US and the Philippines are the only countries in the world where private bond providers operate.
Given that most defendants need to keep working in the run-up to a court date, it's not uncommon for a defendant's family to pay hundreds or even thousands of dollars to a private bond company to ensure their loved one’s liberty before trial - pushing vulnerable families deeper into poverty. Furthermore, marginalised communities bear the brunt of this onerous system - black Americans are incarcerated at more than 5 times the rate of white people.
Jail is the only alternative for those who cannot pay the full bond or a fee to a private bonds provider. Many pre-trial defendants are held in detention for days and weeks at a time, with serious consequences for their jobs, homes, and family.
But alternatives to the money bail system are gaining popularity. In 2017 the state of New Jersey largely abandoned money bail in favour of a system where judges can allow pre-trial defendants to remain free, subject to assessment. In February the city of Philadelphia passed a resolution urging the end of money bail. Washington DC has run a largely efficient pre-trial release system without money bail for more than 25 years.
What can be done to make the pre-trial process in the United States more just?
On this episode of The Stream, we speak with:
Jeff Clayton @ambailcoalition
Executive Director, American Bail Coalition
Cherise Fanno Burdeen @CFBurdeen
CEO, Pretrial Justice Institute
Suad Abdul Khabeer @DrSuad
Senior Editor, Sapelo Square
Flozell Daniels Jr. @FlozellDaniels
CEO, Foundation for Louisiana
When jail feels less like freedom, more like extortion - New York Times
America is waking up to the injustice of cash bail - The Nation
What do you think? Leave your thoughts in the comments section below.