Introducing the Chicago Community Bond Fund, or, Why We Should Let Most People Out of Cook County Jail

[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #15 in December 2015]

The Chicago Community Bond Fund (CCBF) is a brand new organization, joining Chicago’s already robust grassroots efforts to force criminal legal system reform. CCBF is a revolving fund that will pay bond for people charged with crimes in Cook County Jail (CCJ). In addition, we will engage in education about the role of bond in the criminal legal system and ultimately advocate for the abolition of money bond. CCBF supports individuals whose lives and communities have been impacted by structural violence and whose bonds are  completely out of proportion to their ability to pay. We are committed to long-term relationship building and organizing with people most directly impacted by criminalization and policing: people of color, especially Black people, and the poor.

For the uninitiated, bond is essentially a ransom that is charged by the state to release a defendant–who is presumed innocent–from custody while they await trial. Bond is also frequently referred to as “bail.” In Illinois, bonds that require cash payment are called Deposit Bonds or “D-bonds”; people charged with crimes are required to pay 10% of the D-bond amount set by a judge as a “deposit”. For example, if you are given a $10,000 D Bond, you have to pay $1,000 dollars cash in order to be released from police or county custody.

The most common argument for requiring bond is that putting money down will make someone more likely to return to court, but studies show little to no correlation between bond payment and appearance in court. And of course, if someone is not released simply because they might miss a court date, the public must pay to incarcerate them while their case is pending. The cost to keep someone in Cook County Jail is $143 per day, but approaches $200 per day for prisoners with mental health needs, who now make up fully one third of CCJ’s population. The vast majority of people in CCJ are simply awaiting trial, mostly accused of nonviolent crimes.

Of course, a second argument for bond relies on the idea that it keeps us all safe. The public is generally comforted by the idea that a judge has made an individualized assessment of a defendant’s risk of harming someone while out on bond and will only keep them incarcerated if that risk is both concrete and relatively high. However, that idealized vision of bond decisions is nothing like reality. A 2010 study found that the average hearing in Cook County’s central bond court lasted 47 seconds, obviously not enough time for such an assessment to take place.

Furthermore, setting monetary bond undermines the very idea that safety should govern release or detention decisions. Someone who is not dangerous should be released regardless of their access to money; likewise, someone who is truly dangerous should not be released simply because they can pay bond. Our current system makes wealth, not safety, the primary determinant of whether someone is released while awaiting trial. Currently, around 175 of the approximately 9,000 people caged in Cook County Jail are there because they cannot pay bonds set at $500 or less. Add to this that 70% of pre-trial detainees at CCJ are there for nonviolent offenses and that Black defendants are generally more likely to be given cash bond and have bonds set at higher amounts than white defendants, and the merits of money bond become hard to identify.

Nevertheless, while we await the end of the cash-for-freedom model, individual people are stuck in CCJ because they don’t have the personal, familial, or community resources to get out. This is where CCBF comes in. That simple inability to pay bond often has severe negative consequences on the very things that help someone charged with a crime succeed: employment, stable housing, and strong family and community connections. Pre-trial detention can cause loss of housing and/or jobs, separation of families, and lost custody of children. It also results in higher rates of conviction, as people plead guilty in order to go home rather than fight their charges. With the stakes so high, CCBF hopes to alleviate the harm for as many people as possible by assisting them to pay their bonds and remain free while fighting their cases. A non-profit bail fund in New york City, the Bronx Freedom Fund, found that more than 50% of their clients’ cases were dismissed–compared to a 92% conviction rate of those held on bond for the duration of their cases. Assistance with bond will also allow recipients to continue working, providing care for children or other family members, and participating more fully in their own defenses.

CCBF recently incorporated as an Illinois nonprofit and has received federal tax exemption as a 501(c)3. CCBF is, however, merely the new structure being built to contain work that’s been ongoing since 2012, when one of CCBF’s co-founders raised bond for activists arrested in anti-NATO protests. More recently, CCBF members helped raise almost $30,000 dollars to bond out people arrested at a vigil for DeSean Pittman, a 17 year old Black Chicagoan killed by CPD in August 2014. Now, mothers of some of those we bonded out are actively involved in establishing the bond fund that will pay it forward.

Chicago Community Bond Fund is actively seeking individuals interested in education and outreach, as well as organizational partners who may make referrals for help with bond. Most critically, we want your help raising money that will make the difference between months in jail due simply to lack of resources or freedom, community support, and a dramatically increased chance to live life free of a criminal record.

CCBF can be reached at Follow us on Facebook for information about our ongoing projects, fundraisers, and success stories!

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