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Activists are rushing to pay bail for inmates amid coronavirus threat

Coronavirus seeps into U.S. prison system
Coronavirus seeps into U.S. prison system 10:31

Jason Hammond walked into Chicago's Cook County Jail last month with a stack of cashier's checks totaling $75,000. The volunteer for the Chicago Community Bond Fund was bailing out eight inmates at once, his largest group yet in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

"We're not just fighting for a few people, we're fighting for everyone to be bonded out," Hammond told CBS News. "We were doing that before the coronavirus, but now it feels like a double emergency. The cases in prisons are about to explode."

Community bond funds are working overtime as experts warn how quickly disease can spread inside jails. The organizations typically rely on private and small donors to assist those who can't make their cash bail. Criminal justice reform advocates argue the public health crisis is highlighting wealth inequality, as an estimated 450,000 people sit behind bars because they're unable to afford the payment.

The majority of those in jail are being held for pretrial detention, meaning the individual has not been convicted or sentenced. Attorney General William Barr recently ordered U.S. attorneys  against seeking pretrial detentions "to the same degree we would under normal circumstances." While not all of those detained pretrial are subject to a money bond, the majority is considered to be. 

"We don't want to be in the position of having to purchase people's freedom," added Sharlyn Grace, the executive director of the Chicago Community Bond Fund. "The ongoing use of money bonds is creating different justice systems for people with access to money and people without access to money."

The median bail bond payment nationwide is $10,000. That's equivalent to eight months of income for a typical detainee, according to a recent report by the Prison Policy Initiative. California's judicial council issued a statewide emergency order that set bail at $0 for most misdemeanors and low-level felonies in response to coronavirus. 

New York state implemented bail reform, including the prohibition of cash ball for nearly all misdemeanors and nonviolent felony offenses, at the start of 2020. However, part of the initiative was rolled back when the list of eligible crimes for pretrial detention was expanded. Advocates argue this move is now putting thousands at risk of incarceration during the pandemic. 

The coronavirus is adding an extra layer of difficulty to what most advocates call an already strenuous process. Dianna Payton, the CEO of YWCA Greater Baton Rouge, which runs a bail fund for the New Orleans area, said the pandemic has placed additional burdens on coordinating transportation, housing and reunions with family members.

"We're now giving them care packages once they're released, educating them on COVID-19 and doing what we always do," Payton told CBS News. "We make sure that they have some non-perishable food, resource information and basic hygiene items to make sure they're staying safe."

The Baton Rouge bail fund provides long-term case management and now must alter procedures to both educate and protect former detainees. "Our workload was already heavy as it was, the need is always greater than the demand," Payton added.

The bail funds in New Orleans and Chicago both said the average bond they pay is $5,000, although the amount ranges. These organizations typically rely on help from private individuals, or the accumulation of small donors, such as those who contribute $5 on a monthly basis. 

Bond funds are now turning to outside organizations to help ramp up efforts. The Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights organization is teaming up with the Chicago Community Bond Fund, YWCA Greater Baton Rouge Community Bail Fund and similar organizations around the country to provide extra financial assistance during the pandemic. 

RFK Human Rights said it expects to bail out more than 200 people in over 10 cities across the country, a small fraction of those incarcerated. So far, the nonprofit has helped release 20 people in Chicago and 27 in New Orleans.

"These are people innocent under the eyes of the law that are now potentially going to have death sentences," said Wade McMullen, the SVP of programs and legal strategy for RFK Human Rights. "We're in the midst of an unprecedented global health pandemic. No one knows what is going to happen right now and people in jail even less so."

Some reform demands are being answered. The ACLU sent letters to the Federal Bureau of Prisons and state corrections departments urging prosecutors to avoid cash bail requests completely during the pandemic. Their calls targeted Massachusetts, where the state Supreme Judicial Court subsequently ruled that pretrial detainees accused of nonviolent crimes are entitled to release.

"There's no amount of philanthropic effort or community group work that could reach the scale that's needed in the face of the public health crisis, this pandemic," Grace added. "We cannot maintain mass incarceration in jails and prisons and flatten the curve. Those two things are mutually exclusive."

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