RACINE — A group of reform advocates and elected officials have teamed up to create a fund that is to be used to bail people out of the Racine County Jail.
The format isn’t novel: Similar bail funds are set up in cities across the country.
It works like this: Donated dollars are to be held in an account managed by the Wisconsin Alliance for Women’s Health.
Last month, the organizers presented their plan to the Presbytery of Milwaukee. That coalition of 42 Wisconsin church congregations, associated with the Presbyterian Church U.S.A., cites a Bible quote from Jesus Christ — “I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me” — as one of the reasons for its involvement.
Before that money is used, a panel looks through applications of people looking to get out of Racine County Jail where the only thing preventing them from getting out is paying for bail. With a preference for low-level nonviolent felonies, drug offenses and misdemeanors, the panel then chooses who should be bailed out with the money they have available. That person’s bond is then paid.
After that person’s court date, assuming no dates are missed, the court would then return that money to the poster — in these cases, the bail fund. That money can then be recycled to get another person out of jail, even if the previous person’s court case took months or years to conclude.
As such, “single donations can contribute to the freedom of multiple people over a long period of time,” explained Racine County Supervisor Eric Hopkins.
Hopkins, a career educator with the Kenosha Unified School District, defines the purpose of bail as follows: “It is intended to incentivize and encourage a defendant to appear on their court date and not as an admission of guilt or culpability.”
Even without a personal stake in their own bail, Racine’s bail fund predecessors have shown that they are effective in getting people to show up to trial. The Bronx Bail Fund reported that 96% of the people it bailed out — 24 of every 25 cases — didn’t miss court dates.
“Most people, when bail is posted, show up for their court date and do not commit other crimes before that time,” Hopkins said.
In arguing for the importance of getting people out of jail, Hopkins said, “when the fund pays bail, 50% of bail cases are dismissed.” On the flip side, according to Hopkins, those who don’t make bail end up pleading guilty as much as 90% of the time.
Hopkins also said that the chance of conviction quadruples, and length of sentence triples, for someone who stays in jail pre-trial, while “evidence suggests holding someone in jail significantly increases the chances of committing future crimes.”
The local fund takes its name from Racine’s most famous jail springing: Joshua Glover.
Freeing a man
Glover was an African American who escaped slavery in Missouri and came to live in Racine, becoming a well-known and beloved sawmill worker.
On March 10, 1854, a U.S. marshal and the man who claimed to own Glover found him in Racine, beat him and arrested him. When word got out that Glover had been arrested, crowds gathered. The kidnappers, aiming to avoid a growing, freedom-loving mob in Racine, had taken Glover to a jail in Milwaukee to avoid that rage.
It didn’t work.
Hundreds, if not thousands, thronged outside the Milwaukee jail. The guards gave up and let them bust Glover out. He went free, able to spend the rest of his days in Canada.
That tale ended up having a national impact, with Wisconsin being the first state to stand against the Fugitive Slave Act, which had made it legal for escaped slaves to be pulled forcefully back into slavery — a rebellion that preceded the Civil War amid the growing abolitionist movement.
That spirit is what has encouraged the founders of the Joshua Glover Justice Fund, which officially launched last month with the help of the Milwaukee Freedom Fund, to get started.
With bail funds already well-established in cities like Atlanta, Chicago and Los Angeles, Hospitality Center Program Manager Carl Fields said Racine has been “behind the curve.” Other bail funds, like those in the Bronx and Brooklyn, have actually closed after reforms in New York “ended cash bail for the majority of cases where charitable bail funds can provide assistance under state law.” Illinois earlier this year became the first U.S. state to ban cash bail altogether.
Fields, who has spent the better half of two decades of his life incarcerated, continued: “The bail fund helps people to maintain a life, a job, relationships with their kids, an apartment — these are things on the bottom of the pyramid that, if you lose (them), life completely falls apart. If we’re not looking to at least help people maintain what Maslow talked about in the beginning stages, then who are we and what are we doing?”
Half-a-million people are jailed across the U.S. simply because they haven’t paid bail yet, or are unable to, every day, according to Brooklyn Defenders Services. Hopkins added: “Consequences could include losing a job, a home or even custody of children.”
Typically, people facing more serious crimes — homicide, battery, etc. — are given significantly costlier bonds while those facing lower-level offenses — drug possession, disorderly conduct, etc. — have more affordable bonds. The thinking behind that is that people who have lower flight risks or are of higher danger to society are more likely to remain incarcerated, but that’s not always the case.
“You and I can get accused of the same crime on the same day and maybe even get the same amount of bail … and if I have the amount to pay it, then I’m out that same day. I’m making my payments on my apartment or my house and keeping my job or keeping up with school … and most importantly I’m able to fight my case from outside of a cage,” Racine County Supervisor Nick Demske explained, whereas someone without the money to afford bail, even if it’s only a couple hundred dollars, remains locked up.
In Wisconsin, it is possible for someone to be held without bail, but it’s very rare, in part because state law requires someone held without bail can require that their trial be held within 60 days. Incredibly few cases get to trial that quickly under any circumstances, particularly those involving serious crimes such as one that would warrant a believed-to-be dangerous person being held without bail.
“Justice is about repairing and restoring harms, whereas the criminal legal system is about retribution and further disenfranchising people who are already most disenfranchised in our society,” Demske argued. “America, of course, identifies as the land of the free and yet it is the country that incarcerates more of its population than any other country per capita (approximately 0.65% of the total population, according to the Institute for Criminal Policy Research) in the world … We still have the audacity to call ourselves the land of the free.”
Fields built off of this: “This is part of the overall social justice movement of criminal justice reform. It’s also very much needed when you have people getting by paycheck to paycheck ensnared in a scenario that don’t have $250 … but is not a threat to the public, is not a danger to themselves or anybody else, just caught in a moment where they had to put their hands behind their back and now they’re having to deal with being in a cage — because that’s what it is, we cage people that we deem dangerous … and money helps to change that…
“That little bit of money that we’ve raised thus far and we pledge to continue to raise, it is to help people get to the next day … We’re losing people’s ability to stabilize themselves in the long-term.”
Updated: This story originally misstated what organization is the financial receiver for the Joshua Glover Freedom Fund is. The story has since been updated to reflect that the true receiver is the Wisconsin Alliance for Women's Health.