By Michael Nichols & Courtney Beals
In our criminal justice system, cash bail is money paid as a deposit for the release of an individual who has been arrested. Cash bail was originally instituted to ensure that individuals return to court to face the charges against them. However, this system routinely disadvantages low-income defendants who are often unable to afford to post bail. Consequently, these individuals either remain in jail until their trial, plead guilty and forgo the right to defend themselves in trial, or resort to taking out expensive bail bonds. Recognizing that cash bail has a disproportionate impact on low-income defendants, many of whom are minorities, some states and local jurisdictions have taken steps to reform the cash bail system.
In this interview, Michael Nichols shares about his experience participating in a Political Discipleship group that focused on cash bail reform in New Jersey. Political Discipleship is the Center for Public Justice’s 11-week curriculum for small groups that equips participants to advocate for a local issue of the group's choosing and culminates with the group meeting with a public official. Email email@example.com to learn more about starting a Political Discipleship group.
Your Political Discipleship group chose to work on cash bail reform. Why?
Our group was exposed to the issue of cash bail reform through the Political Discipleship curriculum. The curriculum includes a list of possible issues to help guide your group towards a topic. Cash bail reform was on that list.
Our reasoning for selecting cash bail reform over other topics was mostly practical. Living in New Jersey, we knew that the state was on the leading edge of cash bail reform and, as we began doing more research, it became obvious it was the issue we should take up. Since New Jersey was the first state that set out to improve their cash bail system, we hoped to learn more about what the state has done and is doing to repair this injustice. We wanted to know how we could replicate and pursue cash bail reform elsewhere.
As we began doing research, it became almost immediately evident to us how serious of an injustice cash bail is. It destructively creates and perpetuates inequalities by targeting of people of specific socio-economic statuses. Individuals and families with fewer financial resources available to them are often unable to post bail in order to get themselves or a family member out of jail after an arrest. What’s more, these individuals are at higher risk of being arrested to begin with. Wealthy individuals are jointly less likely to be arrested and are more likely to get out on bail if they do find themselves behind bars. This is a problem because an inability to post bail results in separation from familial support networks and job loss, which creates deficits in social and financial capital, further perpetuating poverty and socioeconomic inequality.
How does cash bail serve as a barrier to successful reentry? What are the long lasting consequences of an inability to post bail?
As I mentioned earlier, cash bail contributes to a cycle of poverty. The cycle starts when a low-income individual is arrested. Typically he or she either stays behind bars until trial because they can’t post bail, or they go to a bail bondsman to get their bail on loan. Those who borrow from bondsmen to buy their freedom often spend months or years paying it back.
Taking out a loan from a bail bondsman isn’t ideal, but neither is staying in jail. Spending time behind bars leads to a loss of social capital in one’s community. Working, spending time with family and investing in community organizations and groups, increases social capital, increases feelings of support, and allows individuals to make meaningful contributions to society. While in jail, you not only lose all of these connections, but on the flip side, you become isolated. You’re more likely to be convicted of the offense for which you were arrested. You are only there because you don’t have the money to get out. An inability to post bail places you on a track that makes it more and more difficult to reintegrate into one’s community.
What surprised you about your experience meeting with a public official?
One thing we learned throughout this process is how easy it is to participate in politics and engage in active citizenship. After completing the Political Discipleship curriculum, we decided to meet with the New Jersey Office of the Attorney General. Of those within our Political Discipleship group who went, none had ever met with a public official. We thought it might be a complicated process and we were unsure of the skills or resources we might need in order to conduct a meeting with a public official. However, we found the process simple and easily accessible. The barriers to getting involved are low. We looked up the office of the attorney general, sent an email to his staff, and got a reply within two to three weeks. Members of the office were eager to meet with us. We discovered that meeting with a public official is something that can easily be done in any state, and with officials at both the state and local level. Sharing with your public officials is a social good; it contributes to the common good.
How can Christian 20- and 30-somethings take action on the issue of cash bail reform?
First I would say, educate yourself on what your state has done or is doing. This is pretty easy. Do a Google search! See what various media outlets have written summarizing actions taken by your state.
Second, I would encourage Christian 20- and 30-somethings to meet with public officials. If you’re convinced that this is something that needs to change in your state, take action. Your public officials are there to serve you and should want to hear from you. If you can foster enough interest, there’s a chance you can make change. There’s already a national conversation going on about the flaws of the cash bail system and there are resources for advocacy. Partner with others. Talk with people at your church or other civic groups you’re involved in. Start a Political Discipleship group. There is power in numbers.
Why did you participate in a Political Discipleship group, and why would you encourage your peers to participate in one?
I joined a Political Discipleship group to learn what it might look like for me to be an active citizen and pursue justice as a Christian. The right role of Christians in political engagement is something that Christian theologians and thinkers have been contemplating and debating for a long time. There are a wealth of resources in the Christian tradition related to politics and justice. Most people just don’t know they exist. Political Discipleship provides an opportunity to learn to seek justice and the common good in your political community.
Michael Nichols is a husband, father, and a graduate of the University of Sioux Falls. He is currently completing an M.A. in theology at Princeton Theological Seminary.
Courtney Beals is the Assistant Editor of Shared Justice, an initiative of the Center for Public Justice.
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