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Chicago Community Bond Fund Saves Poor, Working Class Residents From Horror Of Cook County Jail

Editor’s Note

You are reading Part 1 of a 2-part series on the Chicago Community Bond Fund’s organizing to abolish cash bond in Illinois.

The most effective prisoner solidarity efforts work to address the immediate harm of incarceration while fighting to reduce the number of people in the system at the same time. The Chicago Community Bond Fund (CCBF) is an example of a local organization attempting to do both.

CCBF is an all-volunteer non-profit organization, which raises money to post bond for pretrial defendants, who cannot afford to get out of jail. Many of these bonds range in the tens of thousands of dollars, imposed in mere minutes at the whim of judges in Cook County, Illinois.

The bond fund cultivates relationships with the people it bonds out. The organization provides a wide spectrum of support based on that person’s individual needs and situation. It provides training and a platform for those who are willing to tell their stories, etching a human face on the harm and prejudice of cash bond to demand public recognition of the need not to reform, but to abolish it entirely.

Free Man

“I’m from Chicago, born and raised,” Free Man said, using a pseudonym so he could speak about his case.

“I make a lot of music—positive music. I’m a supporter of different organizations like Black Lives Matter, and I support different movements and activism that’s positive,” he said.

Free Man said he was falsely arrested “in the midst of confusion” at a protest for Pierre Loury, a 16-year-old boy killed by Chicago police in April 2016. He was charged with aggravated battery on a “peace officer” and resisting arrest.

After being arrested and charged, defendants like Free Man have a hearing before a bond court judge. The judge is provided a risk assessment score, which is computed by weighing different aspects of a person’s life and record in a way that purportedly measures that person’s risk of not returning to court if released.

The judge can decide to release a person on their own recognizance, place them under surveillance, or order them held without bond until their case is disposed of (or a later hearing imposes one of the other aforementioned options.)

Most commonly in Cook County, a judge will assign a cash bond, known as a Deposit Bond or D Bond. A person with a D Bond must pay the court 10% of the total bond amount to be released from jail. In some cases, people can be confined in their homes under electronic monitoring with a cash bond as well. If that person is able to post bond, the money will be returned, minus fees, at a later date should they faithfully attend trial.

Judges make bond determinations in a fast-paced and churning fashion, with each hearing lasting only minutes. Increasingly, risk assessment scores seem to have little influence over their decisions.

“Judges sometimes have a formula, they’ve been doing this for so long. Every judge is sort of different, theres not a whole lot of oversight or uniformity in how judges treat the charges, but theres personal patterns that matter quite a bit,” said Max Suchan, an attorney and activist who is one of the CCBF’s founders.

Suchan said he recently saw someone in court who scored the lowest possible score on the risk assessment, with no criminal history, and they were still given a $15,000 D Bond, which means they had to post $1,500 to leave jail.

“They’d never been arrested before. They had significant ties to the community. They weren’t a flight risk,” Suchan added. The judge ignored it and “still set the $15,000 D bond.”

The cash bond system is an unproven tool for improving court attendance, but a proven one for incarcerating predominantly poor, African American, and Latino people before a judgement has been made on the charges they face.

Free Man thought the judge would look at his case reasonably and that the hearing wouldn’t be so bad. “But I walked back into the cell with a higher bond than most of the people that was there,” he said.

The judge had imposed a $30,000 D Bond, which meant Free Man would remain behind bars until he either came up with $3,000, his case was disposed, or his bond was reduced or changed.

“I believe my family would have done the best they could to come up with the money,” Free Man said. “I’m not sure how quick it would have been and if it wasn’t for the bond fund, I would have had to sit in there and go through dealing with different things that’s outside of me as far as how I don’t live.”

“Being from Chicago, I know going to Cook County Jail can be a terrible, horrific, traumatic experience, especially if you’re innocent,” he said. “But the bond fund came and got me before I even made it through the process of getting booked.”

“They really saved me from having to maybe go through more, because I know people who get locked up and, it might be for something small, but by the time they get out it’s something bigger because of the things they had to deal with in there. So I’m grateful for the fact that I didn’t have to go through that because there’s not a guarantee that you’re gonna make it out of there with your sanity.”

Out Of Resistance

Suchan said the bond fund grew organically out of local efforts to free people jailed while facing trial for serious felony and misdemeanor charges during the 2012 NATO Summit protests and Black Lives Matter movement.

Judges routinely assigned high bonds that protestors could not afford. Sometimes it would take months, but Suchan and others scrapped together what money they could to get people out of jail.

The harms of pretrial detention extend well beyond what one encounters inside jail. Incarceration prevents a person from working and keeping their jobs, attending school, caring for children and other dependents, receiving regular medical care, and more. It also introduces obstacles to a full and fair defense compared to fighting a case on the outside by limiting a person’s legal resources and ability to communicate with counsel.

The longer a person spends in jail, the greater the consequences. Recognizing this, Suchan and the others began discussing an idea for a sustainable, revolving bond fund, that would have cash on had to reduce the amount of time each person had to wait to get released from jail.

These discussions came to a head in August 2014, when Chicago police officers killed two black teenagers—Roshad McIntosh on the west side and Desean Pittman on the south side—in the same night.

The community gathered with Pittman’s friends and family for a vigil a few days after he was killed. “It wasn’t even a protest,” Suchan said. “It really was just a community mourning vigil to remember his life.” It took place on private property with permission of the owner.

Chicago police moved in on the gathering of about 50 people, ripped down Pittman’s memorial posters, kicked over his candles, and arrested 8 people. Five individuals were charged with serious felonies, ranging from attempted murder of a police officer to mob action and aggravated battery against a police officer.

Pittman’s mother was arrested, as was his aunt, uncle, and high school best friend.

“This was just three weeks after Ferguson,” Suchan said, referring to Michael Brown’s death at the hands of police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri, which ignited protests across the country. “[Police] were alleging that some people at the vigil fought back against this disruptive police presence.”

Suchan read about the vigil in the newspaper, having just returned from serving as a legal observer in Ferguson with the National Lawyers Guild (NLG). He and others contacted the family members of the defendants who were in jail and learned they were already busy trying to raise money.

“They were doing game show nights and fish fries and house parties, trying to sell their cars to get their loved ones out of jail,” he said.

Pittman’s funeral was postponed twice while his family struggled to free his mother so she could attend. A judge ordered her to pay an $85,000 deposit bond, which meant she had to come up with $8,500 for release.

They focused on Pittman’s mother first, “because you should be able to attend your son’s funeral,” he said. The group was able to post her bond the evening before his funeral. They raised the money to do the same for the others over the next few months.

“We got the last person out the day before Christmas Eve, December 2014,” Suchan recalled. “We raised ultimately $30,000 to get everyone out, and it took us a long time to do it.”

Afterward, two mothers of people helped by the fund urged the group to think again about creating a revolving fund.

“The relationships that emerged from this organizing effort gave birth to the Chicago Community Bond Fund,” according to Suchan.

Defendants and family members gathered with the solidarity activists at the end of the year to launch the organization. The fund posted their very first bond about one year after their first meeting and ever since have helped bond out 59 people.

Cook County Jail in Chicago, IL. Photo by Darius Norvilas on Flickr.

Cook County Jail in Chicago, IL. Photo by Darius Norvilas on Flickr.

Flonard

While CCBF’s work with activists is important, Suchan estimates such cases only make up about one-fifth of the people for whom they have posted bond.

Others, like Flonard, who describes himself as “a working class kind of guy,” have been helped by CCBF as well.

“A lot of times I fall short of finances but we do make do the best way we can,” Flonard said. “Basically, I got myself into a little trouble and I wound up in the county jail and they gave me a really high bond.”

A judge imposed a $75,000 D bond, which meant Flonard had to post $7,500 to walk free.

“I was pretty much sitting around in jail going crazy and had a lot on my mind, as you could probably imagine,” he said. “I really didn’t know how I was going to get out of that situation.”

“So I started talking to my wife and she really didn’t have no money like that to get me out. Started talking to family members, and ain’t nobody had that kind of money to get me out. So I was pretty much stuck until I heard about the Chicago Community Bond Fund.”

“I had my wife make a call and when she made that call and we got back in touch with one another, she told me how it’s a possibility. These people might help you out. I said wow, that’s amazing. Any little mustard seed of hope is a lot of hope for a guy who’s locked up.”

Flonard had been in jail for nearly two months when, “out of nowhere, CCBF came like some angels in the night.” Suchan spoke with Flonard and assured him they would do the best they could to get him out.

“I tell you the best part is when that day came, for me to be bonded out, and I got a visit from Sharlyn Grace—she’s part of CCBF— and she came, and we sat in a room, and she said, ‘Well, are you ready to go home?’ And I said, ‘Wow, what kind of question is that?’ She said, ‘At this very moment, they’re posting your bond. Right now.'”

“I couldn’t believe that,” Flonard said. “It felt like heaven. But I was really going to get a good hold of things once I stepped out of that place.”

“It was a blessing and it still is a blessing right now today, although it may be hard sometimes because I’m still going to court.”

Flonard’s wife, Dovie, came up with $3,000 and the bond fund contributed $4,500 to post his $7,500 bond. She said she had to hustle hard and ask everyone she knew to come up with that $3,000.

“If it wasn’t for them, I’d still probably be in there right now,” Flonard said.

Dovie agreed. “We just didn’t have it,” she said. “The bond fund stepped up. Max is very nice, very cordial on the phone, always talking nice, never sounding rude, never sounding impatient. They are just blessed, they are good people, they have good hearts. They care and are concerned about people which is good.”

“[People at the jail] don’t treat people nice and they don’t talk to you,” Dovie continued. “But the bond fund was awesome. Everything he said was true. He led me through the process. He guided me. He told me the info and things I had to tell Flo, and it worked out good. He was very informative, very knowledgeable about what he was doing.”

“[While Flonard was in jail], it was scary, it was uncertain. We didn’t know what we was going do, we didn’t know how it was going to work out. We didn’t have any idea. We were asking people and people were just like, they just didn’t have it.”

“Only a few people, very few people helped us and they helped us good. A couple families helped us very well, a couple of friends they helped us real good.” She said some friends gave money for Flonard’s commissary account so he could purchase food and essential supplies in jail.

“But it was very scary, because you don’t know what’s going to happen, you know? You need this money but you don’t have it. You don’t know how you’re gonna get it. You don’t know if you’re gonna get it. So it’s scary,” Dovie said.

Flonard called it “nerve-wracking,” and said he didn’t know how he made it day-to-day.

“I’m surprised I didn’t get ulcers or something. It was a real bad experience. I wouldn’t wish that on nobody,” he said. “It’s rough, it’s hard to describe how bad it was. But the feeling you get when you locked up is not good, man, not good at all.”

Flonard fought his case for almost a year by the time he spoke to Shadowproof. He believes, were it not for the bond fund, he would still be locked up in Cook County Jail today as he fights his case.

“That’s a scary thought. It makes you appreciate the process even better as far as the bond fund goes.”

Suchan and the bond fund have cultivated a close relationship with Flonard and Dovie, and they often share meals. Suchan said the bond fund is a vehicle for relationship building and organizing, “which enriches all of our lives and makes our world stronger.”

“I feel accountable to the people I work with. I would be appalled by a world that would put Flo in a cage.”

"Obama at Healthcare rally at UMD." Photo by Daniel Borman (dborman2) on Flickr.
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Brian Sonenstein

Brian Sonenstein

Publishing Editor at Shadowproof and columnist at Prison Protest.