Two national bail organizations, the Bail Project and the National Bail Fund Network, direct millions of dollars annually toward paying bail. They are now positioned to move thousands of vulnerable people out of harm’s way from the coronavirus. They are nonprofit organizations, and contributions are tax deductible.
As The Marshall Project’s Joe Neff and Anna Flagg recently wrote in The New York Times, local jails — where people not convicted of a crime await their court date — are fertile breeding grounds for disease. Over 200,000 people flow into and out of local jails every week, where they are fingerprinted, escorted by corrections officers and visited by their families. “The churn of people moving in and out threatens to accelerate the spread of the disease, endangering the incarcerated, the staff and the larger community,” they wrote.
Historically, the argument for outsiders providing bail for people awaiting trial has been straightforward: It’s a matter of justice. Over 670,000 people sit in our jails and immigrant detention centers, accused but not convicted of a crime, often for long stretches, waiting for their trial or hearing. In one notable case last year, a transgender woman, Layleen Polanco, died while in restrictive housing at Rikers Island in New York City after being incarcerated for nearly two months. City officials determined that her death was caused by complications from epilepsy. She was unable to come up with $500 bail following a misdemeanor assault charge.
Now, with the number of Covid-19 cases mounting among the incarcerated and corrections officers around the country, what began as a criminal justice initiative has become a public health imperative. From the beginning of the pandemic, advocates for the imprisoned have worked to persuade governors, judges and prosecutors to get them out of harm’s way by granting early release. According to the Vera Institute of Justice, jurisdictions such as Westchester County in New York; Marion, Ind.; and Wayne, Mich., have recently reduced their jail populations by roughly 30 percent. But these jurisdictions represent exceptions to the national trend, not the rule.
“We’re hearing from a lot of public defenders offices saying we’ve been fighting, we’ve asked the governor, we’ve asked the mayor, we need more money to get people out ourselves,” said Ms. Weiss of the National Bail Fund Network.