Since Thomas Harvey helped start ArchCity Defenders in 2009, he has delivered legal representation to homeless and working poor people throughout St. Louis. But now, Harvey is taking part in a nationwide effort that could get tens of thousands of people out of jail while they await a trial.
Harvey is relocating to Los Angeles to take a position with the Bail Project, which is seeking to pay the bails of roughly 160,000 people over the next few years. The organization plans to set up operations in 40 cities, including St. Louis. Harvey says the work will change lives and communities — and provide momentum to an existing activist movement to end cash bail.
“If it’s someone who hadn’t committed the crime, getting them out (of jail) is not only the difference between losing housing, jobs, transportation, connections to community, connections to family, it’s also probably the difference between pleading guilty or not,” Harvey said. “Getting a conviction that then sets you on a path to not being able to get the greatest job or having limitations to the jobs you can get in the state of Missouri — or having impact on your ability to vote in certain states.”
“It sets you up for a lifetime of consequences for something you may not have done,” he added.
Harvey said the Bail Project will work with activists who have questioned whether cash bail is equitable to low-income and minority people. Changing the system won’t be easy. But with millions of dollars in financial commitments, many people who advocate for the poor inside and outside the legal system expect the Bail Project to make a big impact.
“What we’re saying is this table that’s been created to talk about the long term alternatives to cash bail actually needs to include people who are victims of cash bail,” said Kayla Reed of the St. Louis Action Council. “And we have to get them out of jail to be at that table and be a part of those conversations.”
“My life would have continued as normal”
Part of the problem Harvey sees with cash bail is encapsulated in the experience of Jasmine Borden.
Borden was arrested this year on charges of child endangerment and leaving the scene of an accident. As of Wednesday, she has not been convicted in that case. But she spent a little over two months at the St. Louis Medium Security Institution before groups like the St. Louis Action Council and Decarcerate St. Louis raised $500 to bail her out of the jail widely known as the Workhouse
She said her experience at the Workhouse was devastating.
“If I were bailed out the next day, I wouldn’t have lost my job,” Borden said. “I would have been able to pay my rent. My children would have been still been at home. My life would have continued as normal still dealing with the case.”
For people like Kennard Williams of Missourians Organizing for Reform and Empowerment, Borden’s situation showcases the inequities and shortcomings of cash bail. He says low-income and middle-income individuals don’t often have hundreds of dollars available to get out of jail, which exposes them to some harsh consequences of incarceration.
“This is people’s lives,” he said. “If you have a family that you have to support, if you’re lucky enough to have a two-parent household ... that person probably won’t be able to afford to bail somebody out and keep food on the table and keep the kids in school and pay the rent.”
It’s not just difficulties in getting the necessary money to bail somebody out of jail that’s problematic to Reed. She pointed to a scenario where a wealthy person accused of murder can post bond quickly, but a low-income individual facing a much less serious offense remains in jail because they don’t have a few hundred dollars at their disposal.
“What we are saying is a system that only triggers your release upon payment is problematic because it disproportionately impacts poor people. And that group in St. Louis, and a lot of major cities across the U.S., are African-Americans,” she said. “We need to look at cash bail as a problem. Because it’s not an equalizer. What it says is ‘if you’re wealthy or if you have access to resources, the justice system works for you.’ If you’re not those things, then automatically you’re just criminalized.”
In addition to the personal toll on people, Saint Louis University Law School professor Susan McGraugh said bail can cause low-income communities to spiral downward.
“We’ve watched entire areas of our city get decimated by the young, particularly male, members of that community being incarcerated,” said McGraugh, who has represented indigent, mentally ill and homeless clients. “And it has really, really serious effects on the communities ability to stabilize.”
Moving the needle
Thomas Harvey 's new mission is find ways to end that spiral. He said the Bail Project will hire two “disruptors” in each city who will bail people out of jail. The group will initially have sites in the Bronx, St. Louis and Tulsa, but hopes to eventually expand to 40 cities.
Some of the people who have pledged money for the Bail Project include investors Mike Novogratz and Richard Branson. Harvey said the group has $30 million in financial commitments.
“What I’m hoping is to establish relationships like what we have with Action Council and MORE across the country and say ‘you let us know what the community priorities are,’” Harvey said. “You might have a high immigrant population in your jail we want to focus on, we might turn our attention there. You may have a situation where there are folks that are transgender and they’re being misgendered in the jail and they may be in harm’s way. We focus our attention there. But overall, the idea is that we’re going to try to get people out.”
Additionally, Harvey is hoping to provide a boost to activists, like Reed and Williams, who have been seeking to end cash bail
“The Bail Project itself is not going to be leading a movement to shut down a jail. But the Bail Project seeks to collaborate with folks and plug in and supplement their existing movement work,” he said. “And data is something we’re going to be able to collect on a level that it’s never been collected before. As we operate in 40 jurisdictions and see who gets out and who gets back and what the sentencing differences are if people are out of jail that entire time, we’re going to be able to make an argument ... it’s going to be open source data so that all people can share that and use that to whatever advocacy way they want.”
St. Louis officials came to an agreement this year that they would end cash bail for most municipal offenses. Other cities, like New Orleans and Chicago, have launched alternative efforts to cash bail.
But completely ending cash bail will require buy-in from judges who set bail and prosecutors who request it.
Prognosis from stakeholders
In a statement to St. Louis Public Radio, St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner said reducing incarceration rates is “an important part of the criminal justice system,” adding that “people should not linger in jail simply because they’re poor.”
“Since taking office, I have been committed to evaluating current practices to determine how we can improve processes and practices to promote confidence in the criminal justice system,” Gardner said. “Over the next few weeks, I will be announcing a national partnership that will enable me to collect and review pre-trial bail/bond data to make sure that poverty alone is not the basis for a resident to be held in jail pre-trial.”
Christian County Prosecutor Amy Fite is the president of the Missouri Association of Prosecuting Attorneys. She said that her colleagues are eager to listen to alternative ideas to cash bail. But she added there are instances where it’s necessary, such as when somebody is a flight risk or a repeat offender.
“I think for us and our position as prosecutors, it’s always going to be important than any proposals that come out can’t put the public at risk and it can’t impinge upon crime victims’ rights,” Fite said.
Harvey said a relatively small percentage of people held on bail are facing violent crimes. He also emphasized that anyone accused of a crime is innocent until proven guilty.
“So no matter what the charge is, a court, by assessing bail, says ‘you can leave the jail. You are not so dangerous that we would prohibit your return to your community during dependency of your trial,’” he said. “They’ve just said ‘you have to come up with a certain amount of money to do it.’ And you can imagine that such a system has impacts more directly on poor people — and obviously communities of color across St. Louis for sure and across the nation.”
The Bail Project is expected to open its site in St. Louis in 2018.
Follow Jason on Twitter: @jrosenbaum