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Justice Is Blind To Money, Part 1: The People

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Merle Cooper
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Season 2 of Unprisoned begins with a three-part series called The Myth Justice is Blind to Money.

The Myth Justice is Blind to Money, Part 1 is a primer on how bail works, effectively helping to pay for the criminal legal system by taxing those arrested and prosecuted -- our city’s most vulnerable citizens, most of whom are poor and Black. This episode follows the case of one man, Albert, arrested on a drug charge, and how he eventually gets out of jail through help from The Safety and Freedom Fund, better known as the Bond Angels. The Bond Angels posted Albert’s bail so he could get back to work, his family, and his life. Their long-term goal is taking money out of justice: abolishing money bail.

Transcipt:

This season of Unprisoned looks at some of the myths we tell ourselves about our criminal legal system. Today we start with a big one — that Justice is blind to money.

Since the 1970s, our criminal legal system has grown by 700 percent. The bigger it is, the more money it needs to operate. Where does that money come from?

The answer here in New Orleans is the same as a lot of places: a lot of it comes from the people we charge and prosecute — the vast majority of them poor and Black. When people pay bail through a commercial bail bonds company, they also pay a 3 percent fee to fund the courts, the sheriff, the district attorney and the public defender. Then there’s fines and fees.

Most people agree something needs to change, but how? What?

You’re listening to Unprisoned. I’m Eve Abrams.

This is the myth Justice is Blind to Money.

Part 1: The people.

EVE: Albert is a food guy

ALBERT: I have Julia Child's first paperback, the French Chef cookbook. I have Emerald’s TV Dinners, Southern Recipes and Legends.

EVE: Albert’s 54, and he’s worked in New Orleans kitchens for over 35 years.  

ALBERT: I also have… uh… Where’s my glasses?  Here we go.

EVE: He reaches into the stack of cookbooks on his desk, pulls one out, and starts flipping through.

ALBERT:  This is the top 100 food zones -- give you certain information on certain things-- celery, apples, the nutritional benefits of certain foods.

EVE: We’re not using Albert’s last name, in order to protect his job security. Currently he works for a company that has him cooking all over the city. He gets around to work by bicycle.

ALBERT: rubber wheels beat rubber heels any day

EVE: Meaning, why walk when you can bike?

ALBERT: Yes ma'am. Exactly. Cause that's the beauty of the city: you can get from point A to point B in under 30 to 45 minutes

EVE: One night last fall, Albert was biking home from work. He’d been cooking in a stadium. It was around one in the morning, and the streets were deserted. He came to a red light, looked both ways, and because there were no cars, biked through the intersection.

ALBERT: That's what I got pulled over. The officer said: I know you saw the light was red. I said: I know you saw me stopped at the red light. Ain't nothing out here. Just me and you out here.  Give me your ID.

EVE: The officer ran Albert’s name through his computer, and when he stepped back out of his car

ALBERT: first thing he did, he put the handcuffs on me. So I got handcuffed. They put me in the back. They brought me to Orleans Justice Center. I was processed and booked with distribution.

EVE: Distribution of crack cocaine. The police had a warrant out for Albert’s arrest -- for something that had happened the year before.  

ALBERT: In 2017, we were uptown, sitting outside of a washerette. A friend of mine was doing his laundry, and this guy pulled up in a truck. He had a ladder in the back and he was trying to buy drugs. He was trying to make it to work on time. At first we ran him away from here because it was --this, this not a drug zone.

EVE: How did you run him away? What did you say?

ALBERT: Ain't nothing-- ain't nobody doing nothing over here, man. Go on about your business, but his persistence paid off. He came back a second time, and he came with an offer. Sweetened the pot, in other words. He said if we can get him some drugs, he would give us some money.  $20 a piece.

EVE: Did you tell him where to go or did he ask you where to go?

ALBERT: he had an idea of the area -- cause what made us fall for it: He told us, he said, he go in the hood, an African American community. And when he try to get it from other people over there, they'll take his money and run off with it or hide, or they wasn't selling what he was looking for.

EVE: What did he look like?

ALBERT: He was white guy, you know, but it kind of made us feel sorry for him. Man, come on. He played on our emotions.

EVE: Turns out, this white man playing on Albert’s emotions was an undercover cop who issued a warrent for Albert’s arrest. But it took a little over a year for that arrest to happen -- at Albert’s next contact with the police -- at that red light. So that’s when Albert was booked into the New Orleans jail. His bail bond wasn’t high – only $300.  But that didn’t matter.  Because Albert didn’t have $300.

ALBERT: At that time I was in between pay periods. Just paid the rent, lights, water.

EVE: And of course, while he was in jail, Albert couldn’t work – so he couldn’t earn $300 to make bail and get out. So he sat in jail for weeks.

Sitting in jail while your case winds its way through the system can take days, months, even years. This can be personally disastrous. If you’re in jail, you can’t show up for work, so it’s really easy to lose your job.  And because you lose your job, you can’t pay rent, so you might lose your home.  You can’t care for your children while you’re in jail, so you very well may lose them too.  But Albert was lucky in a few ways.

When you’re arrested, your cellphone, along with all your property, is taken. But Albert knows his sister’s number by heart, so he called her. And she knew what to do. This wasn’t Albert’s first arrest. She called Albert’s boss and told him what had happened, and remarkably, they held Albert’s job – until he got out.

ALBERT: I've been with this company for three years that I worked for, and the coordinator, he knows exactly the type of employee he’s dealing with.

EVE: Which is what?

ALBERT: He's dependable. He's punctual and he knows his way around a kitchen.

EVE: Most people are like Albert: they can’t afford to pay their entire bail. Many of them just stay in jail.  But anyone who can scrape together some amount of money, and who has people on the outside who can go to a bail bonds company, works out a deal, signs a contract, and pays them.  Not the full amount. In Louisiana, 12 or 13%.

But Albert’s court-appointed public defender had another solution -- Albert’s second stroke of luck. The lawyer reached out to a group called The New Orleans Safety and Freedom Fund and told them about Albert’s situation. This fund is also known as the Bond Angels, because they get people out of jail-- people they don’t know: by paying their bonds with money from anonymous donors.  They paid Albert’s $300, in full.  So he got to go home after 3 weeks, instead of staying in jail while his case resolved, which took 6 months.

JEN MEDBERY: The vast majority of people we bond out are arrested for things like theft, drug possession, fighting.

EVE: Jen Medberry helped create the Safety and Freedom Fund around three years ago. She’s explaining how it works to a group of people gathered around a table in a cavernous New Orleans art gallery.

JEN MEDBERY: And we’re not the first to do this.  We studied the way revolving bail funds have been working in other places, like Nashville and Chicago and Brooklyn for years. We’re part of a network of over 40 community bail funds across the country that rally the community to bond out our neighbors so they can get back to work, get back to their families.

EVE: The fund invites people to events like this to educate the wider public about the impact of bail on both safety and justice. Jen and the other founders have a dual mission: the direct work of bonding people out, and the long-term goal of ending money bail.  

JEN MEDBERY: Ultimately the change we need to see is to take money out of the equation and replace it with a system where most people are released back to the community and only those who, after a hearing, are demonstrated to be truly such a threat to public safety that really no amount of money should allow them to buy their way out.

EVE: The Bond Angels get referrals, usually from the Public Defender’s Office, like in Albert’s case. Before they post someone’s bail, the Bond Angels have a vetting process. A big part of it is making sure that person has strong connections to the community. They do this because data shows that ties to the community are a strong predictor of whether or not someone will return to court to resolve their case. Jen says, the Bond Angels bail out people...

JEN: who are not a public safety risk, are not a flight risk, haven’t been convicted, aren’t serving time, are just there because they’re too poor to post the bond amount that’s been set.

NORMA: Do you really understand how long somebody can be kept in jail because they can’t pay?

EVE: This is Norma Grace. She recently visited the magistrate court, where bail is set, on a trip arranged by the fund. The group sat in court for an hour and a half and watched over a dozen people, shackled and wearing orange jumpsuits, make their first appearances before a judge.  All of them had been arrested within the last 72 hours. They were in court for two reasons: for the judge to determine if the police had probable cause to arrest them and for the judge to determine if bail was needed, and if so, how much.  Ever since Norma went, she can’t stop talking about it.

NORMA: Oh, I’ve talked to so many people. I’ve talked to so many people.

EVE: Norma’s 70, retired. She was vice chancellor at the University of New Orleans. And she’s the kind of person the Bond Angels want to bear witness to how money bail works: someone who might not otherwise see this particular side of the justice system. Norma reads the paper, she read The New Jim Crow, but she says going to court, and actually watching the Judge set bail – that’s when it clicked.

NORMA: I mean you can read about it, but until you see it you can’t believe it.

EVE: How assembly-line and mechanical it is.

NORMA: They brought the prisoners in and it was like a chain gang. They all sat in the back of the court, and it was so impersonal. It's not that they were ever brought up front, really. It was done from a distance. And it was done so quickly. Like each case was heard so quickly that I didn't feel there was a way for anybody to have really understood the cases. So from a point of personal “where that I?” I would've felt that my case wasn't heard, that-- it wouldn't have been me because I can pay (laughs) you know, and that was the, that's what hit me the most.

EVE:  That money plays such a big part in justice.

Which is why the Bond Angels want to remove money as a condition of a person’s liberty. By paying bail for people like Albert -- not by going through a bail bonds company, but by paying in full, directly to the court.

After his release, Albert had to return to court around 4 times to deal with his case.  First, he had to wait for the DA to accept or drop the charges against him. They accepted. Then he had to wait for a plea offer from the DA: two years probation.  Albert accepted.

So now, for two years, Albert has to meet with his probation officer every month. And he has to report to a probation center 3 days a week. I asked Albert how he feels about all this – about complying with the terms of his probation. He said,

ALBERT: This word comply.  If you comply

EVE: Albert says if you comply, you get to do your thing-- which for him is...

ALBERT: stay abreast of all different food trends and everything coming out: Master Chef, Food and Wine Magazine.  I’m into all that. That’s my bread and butter. But if you don’t comply, you face incarceration. We gonna lock you back up.

EVE: People who make bail through a bail bonds company, they never get their money back. But if you pay in full, to the court, like the Safety and Freedom Fund did for Albert, that amount gets refunded, after your case has been resolved. So that $300 the Fund paid to bail out Albert, now they can use that same money to bail someone else out.

JEN: We have raised over $100,000 that goes directly into the Fund.  We’ve used that $100,000 to post a little over $200,000 worth of bail because of the way it recycles.

EVE: But since Covid 19 forced Orleans Parish courts to close for over two months, no one’s case was getting resolved, like Albert’s eventually was. Montrell Carmouche directs the Safety and Freedom Fund.

MONTRELL: The money into the fund – all our donations and grant funding goes into the revolving fund. But because the District attorney are not closing any cases, that means we’re not getting any money back.

EVE: Yet new people were still getting arrested. 65% of them for non-violent crimes, like Albert. Thanks to contributions and a grant from the Robert F. Kennedy Foundation, the Fund’s bonded out over 140 people during the pandemic, but without that money recycling?

MONTRELL: as of today, we literally have $6k left in that fund, so probably tonight – once I post the bond referrals that we have – probably tonight we’ll be broke.

EVE: The Safety and Freedom Fund began bailing people out of jail around 3 years ago. The Fund’s freed over 400 people, like Albert.  But New Orleans arrests around 16,000 people each year. To make a dent in the burden low-income people pay into the system, the city needs change at a much bigger scale. That’s next time, on Unprisoned.

Unprisoned’s editors are Viki Merick and Katy Reckdahl. Our theme music is by Greg Schatz. A version of this story originally aired on the podcast 70 Million. Thanks to the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation for supporting Season 2 of Unprisoned. Learn more about the show at Unprisoned dot org and wwno dot org.

I’m Eve Abrams. This is Unprisoned.

Eve Abrams first fell in love with stories listening to her grandmother tell them; it’s been an addiction ever since.