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A Letter to the Bail Industry

The Essie Justice Group is an organization of women with incarcerated loved ones taking on the rampant injustices created by mass incarceration. Our award-winning Healing to Advocacy Model brings women together to heal, build collective power, and drive social change. We are building a membership of fierce advocates for race and gender justice — including Black and Latinx women, formerly and currently incarcerated women, Transwomen, and gender non-conforming people.

Dear Bail Industry,

For hundreds of years there have been industries and individuals that have made it their business to profit off of the bondage of others. When it comes to this type of injustice, our society can be a bit farsighted. Looking into the past, it is easy to agree on where putting people over profits went horribly wrong. But today, you and us, we find ourselves in a strange and all too familiar debate about whether it is okay for your industry to put a price on our freedom.

We know you well. We are women with incarcerated loved ones who have put up our homes as collateral to pay your fees. We are formerly incarcerated people who have had to suffer abuse, torture, and violence inside of jails because we couldn’t bail out. We are the women incarcerated in jails torn away from our responsibilities and families; 80% of us are mothers. We are transgender people who are jailed and criminalized for nothing more than living our identity—and then are least likely to be able to afford bail because our poverty rate is three times the national average. We are people in immigration detention centers, many of us asylum seekers, who remain separated from our families due to extraordinarily high bonds. We are the Black and Brown communities where you set up your storefronts and toward whom you target your racist advertisements. We are organizations that believe that the deaths of Kalief Browder, Venida Browder, Sandra Bland, and countless others at the hands of the bail system are intolerable. We are ordinary people who have had enough of this injustice.

We know that right now you are scared. The world is changing, and more and more people are coming together to build a future in which we have more access to health, schools, parks, and playgrounds than we do to prisons, jails, and bail bonds agencies. That’s why across the country you see our movement is winning a wave of lawsuits that declare existing bail systems unconstitutional. It’s why bail reform legislation is being considered at all levels of government from both sides of the aisle. It’s why celebrities and athletes are partnering with grassroots organizations to speak out and demand change. It’s why prominent law enforcement officials and aligned stakeholders (including over sixty prosecutors from across the country, associations of police, judges, attorneys, and counties) have condemned money bail as discriminatory. It’s why earlier this year Google and Facebook deemed your industry predatory and banned bail bonds advertisements from their platforms.

Bail is deeply flawed. Think about it. “Pay and you can go home, don’t pay and you stay in a cage.” That’s the deal you are part of brokering every day that you are in business. With the national average bail at $10,000—well beyond what most people can afford to hand over to a court—this system is incredibly lucrative for you. With jobs on the line, kids to care for, medications that need to be accessed, combined with the reality of violence inside jails, people come to you desperate. It’s upon that vulnerability that your industry feeds. Your industry asks that people buy their freedom or the freedom of their loved ones, and for that you charge a 10% fee—even if the case gets dismissed, even if they make every single one of their court dates, you never return the money. In 2016, your industry collected an estimated $2 billion from unconvicted people and their loved ones. Making matters worse, this money comes from communities of color and neighborhoods who are least able to afford it.

Your impact has not been liberatory, it’s been devastating. Your insistence that you are a job creator for Black and Brown people simply because “there are bail agents of color!” is ridiculous. Your insistence that you “provide a social service!” rather than impoverish families is shameful. Your insistence that you are a “freer of people!” rather than an engine of mass incarceration insults intelligence.

By now you might think that, from our perspective, stamping out your industry would be enough to declare victory. There you’re wrong.

You may have noticed that there are bail reform proposals that author your demise that we are against. That’s because we believe when you get rid of something, you have a responsibility to replace it with something better. And right now, there are proposals out there that will end your industry and at the same time, usher in more incarceration, more racial bias, and more control over the bodies and lives of low income communities and people of color. This is “bad bail reform” and regressive criminal justice policy.

“Good bail reform” leads to less incarceration, generates no profit for government or private industry, has meaningful community oversight, provides more services to people, decreases correctional budgets, protects people in communities, reduces racial disparities in the criminal justice system, focuses on need rather than risk, has no direct cost to individuals and families, and does not surveil people in their homes using inhumane technologies like electronic monitoring.

Make no mistake that from here on out we will be just as loud in opposing bad bail reform as we are in calling out your continued profiteering. In doing so, we will do more than ensure the erasure of your industry—we will build a world where we and our loved ones can be safe and free.


Black and Pink

Brave New Films

Brooklyn Bail Fund

Chicago Community Bail Fund

Civil Rights Corps

Colorado Freedom Fund

Defending Rights & Dissent

Denver Justice Project

Equal Justice Under Law

Essie Justice Group

Immigrant Family Defense Fund

Insight Center for Community Economic Development

Media Alliance

Media Mobilizing Project

National Center for Lesbian Rights

Oakland Privacy

Philadelphia Bail Fund

Philadelphia Community Bail Fund

Public Justice Center

Richmond Community Bail Fund

Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights

The Massachusetts Bail Fund

The National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls

Unitarian Universalist Association

Young Women’s Freedom Center

YWCA San Francisco & Marin

Showing Up for Racial Justice of Southwest Florida

Silicon Valley De-Bug

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