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As Abolition Becomes More Likely, Chicago Bond Fund Sees Future Where They Aren’t Needed

Editor’s Note

You are reading Part 2 of a two-part series on the Chicago Community Bond Fund’s organizing to abolish cash bond in Illinois.
Around 70 people volunteer for the Chicago Community Bond Fund, a nonprofit organization that raises money to post bond for people who can’t afford to get out of Cook County Jail while awaiting trial.

The bond fund relies on volunteers and purposely avoids hiring full time staff. It was an all-volunteer organization until February, when they had to hire one person to handle the increasing amount of work involved in delegating volunteers and handling administration. But they do not want to invest in expanding the organization unless absolutely necessary because they want to accomplish their goal and be gone in a year.

“We’re hoping that cash bond will be ended, and we can focus our efforts on other injustices and community-building efforts in the future,” explains Max Suchan, an attorney and one of the bond fund’s founders.

CCBF’s volunteers fight for justice through various community organizations in Chicago. Suchan works with the National Lawyers Guild, while groups like Mothers United Against Violence and Incarceration and the People’s Response Team (a group that responds to killings and police violence in the Chicagoland area) are also represented in their ranks.

The volunteers are spread across four committees. The fundraising committee recently raised over $120,000—more than double their goal. In the beginning, most of the money the bond fund raised came in the form of small-dollar donations from hundreds of supporters in response to arrests at protests.

For example, the bond fund committed to bonding out all protesters arrested during the demonstrations that shut down President Donald Trump’s Chicago campaign rally in March 2016. They published a fundraising page online and brought in $50,000 within 24 hours. Donations came from all over the United States.

The bond fund organizes in-person fundraisers and house parties. The fund organizes one or two yearly events. They raise money at Hanukkah parties and through collections at churches.

Volunteers also raise funds through a constellation of supporters and allies, like the benefit album put out by local Chicago artists, titled “Down In The Trumps: A Mixtape For The Chicago Community Bond Fund.”

The most recent fundraiser in November 2016, which CCBF kicked off with a big party in the basement of a church, raised over $10,000 in one night and netted much larger donations than ever before.

Suchan speculates the bond fund is raising more money because they are on the brink of achieving their goal to end cash bond and reduce pretrial detention in Illinois.

“You see people, even like Tom Dart, who’s the head of the Cook Count Jail here, and Eddie Johnson, superintendent of the Chicago Police Department, are starting to get on board with bond reform and use the rhetoric of ending and abolishing cash bond, which was interesting,” he adds.

Late last year, Dart began calling for abolishing the state’s cash-bond system, acknowledging how it relentlessly targets low income residents. He argued bond does not ensure people appear in court, and it does not make communities safer.

Illinois lawmakers introduced a bill to abolish cash bond this year.

“It’s not a fringe, wing argument anymore,” Suchan said. “When we started, it felt very much like that sometimes, but the tide is turning and people realize and they want to help push us over the edge.”

Another committee provides post-bond support, but volunteers do not “police [defendants] or look over their shoulder.”

“We’re not pretrial services, we’re not probation. We are there to offer support,” Suchan said.

“There’s a spectrum of support that people need. Sometimes people want assistance with finding jobs or housing or benefits, and those are all things that we don’t do directly ourselves but we can get people connected to partner organizations we work with that do those things.”

Arrests, even if they don’t end in conviction, can trigger eviction for a person living in public housing. In some cases, people bonded out of jail need housing to begin with.

The bond fund works with organizations like Cabrini Green Legal Aid, which provides social and legal services for free to Chicago residents, to help meet these needs.

Cabrini Green also helps with record expungement, another need that has arisen as expunging criminal records can make it easier for a person to obtain employment.

The bond fund guides people through immigration services and helps them get identification. Because some public benefits are turned off after 30 days in Cook County Jail, CCBF helps people get their benefits turned back on.

In some cases, volunteers refer people to attorneys or other legal aid agencies if they wish to pursue civil lawsuits for unlawful arrest, excessive force, or other rights violations.

Post-bond support is highly individualized and “looks drastically different across the spectrum,” according to Suchan. Sometimes the support is as simple as providing reminders for court dates and helping people coordinate rides.

Bond Squad, Education, And Advocacy

The bond squad is another committee, which responds to requests for bond assistance. They evaluate candidates based on criteria to decide whether they should help bond them out.

Those factors include: being unable to pay bond; the bond amount; the person’s existing support systems to make court dates and other support; their risk of victimization in jail, including gender identity and expression, people with disabilities, and youth or elder status; if they have special health needs; if they have dependents or other family members who may be harmed by  detention; their immigration status and potential consequences of a criminal conviction.

The bond fund considers whether a person has been referred through or are connected to an established partner organization; the anticipated impact of detention on their employment, housing, educational attainment, and/or custodial rights; their position in relation to structural violence, community disinvestment, systemic racism, survival, and resistance; and their willingness to assist with raising money to cover any anticipated court costs, fines, or fees that will not be refunded to the bond fund.

The bond squad reaches a consensus and decides whether to make a recommendation to a review committee of formerly incarcerated people and family members of the incarcerated, as well as other activists and attorneys working with the bond fund.

Members of this committee respond within a couple of hours whether they accept or reject a recommendation to post bond.

An education and advocacy committee focuses on policy and efforts to end the use of cash bond in Illinois.

“While the revolving bond fund is getting people out of the jail right now, we are working to change policies and laws that will eliminate the use of monetary bail and decrease pretrial detention and other forms of pretrial punishment for everyone in Cook County, and ideally everyone in Illinois,” says Sharlyn Grace, chair of the education and advocacy committee and an activist and attorney with the Chicago Appleseed Fund For Justice.

Grace continues, “This takes a wide range of forms, from specific opposition to policies that would further entrench the use of money bail to general consciousness-raising about the harms of pretrial incarceration through sharing personal narratives about its impact or data and statistics.”

Last year, the committee organized a panel on concepts of “Risk and Dangerousness in an Unequal Society.” They also participated in a county hearing on monetary bond and pretrial detention last November, and spoke at a press conference that morning.

The bond fund supports HB 3421, a bill that would eliminate money bond in Illinois. While they are not official sponsors of the bill, they have spoken at press conferences and support the legislation’s goals.

“While that bill didn’t pass out of committee this year, we are optimistic that there is an opportunity for significant reforms in the near future,” Grace said.

Representatives from each committee meet monthly to ensure “everything we’re doing is advancing our ultimate aim, which is to end the use of cash bond in Illinois,” Suchan states.

“We don’t want to exist. We’re very clear about that,” Suchan further declares. “And that’s part of the reason why we remained all-volunteer this long, even though we did so much work. It’s an intense amount of work every day, even with as many volunteers as we have. But we hope that we don’t have to exist in a year.”

“People’s situations are so urgent. People are losing or have already lost their jobs. They haven’t seen their kids in months. It’s incredibly urgent. And each day that someone is sitting in jail is a day where they could be potentially exposed to violence or at least a really harmful disruption of their life.”

“We’re getting really caught up in the urgency of people’s lives and how pretrial detention is disrupting people’s lives and that’s important, but then you want to make sure you’re balancing that with a longer term vision of—this entire dynamic shouldn’t exist. No one should be sitting in jail because they lack $3,000, $10,000, $15,000 dollars.”

Suchan recognizes, “We’ll never be able to bond out all the people we want to bond out of jail. It’s impossible. We’ll never have that kind of money. It’s millions and millions of dollars, and it’s an enormous amount of work.”

“There are roughly 8,000 people sitting in Cook County Jail right now and another 2,000 on house arrest. We’ll never be able to get them all out. I mean just thinking of all the work we had to do to get 59 out.”

“We need to be disrupting the broader system, inserting whatever we can do in public opinion to raise awareness about the use of cash bond and make people understand what it is and how it disrupts people’s lives and how inefficient it is and how unnecessary it is and working to end it,” Suchan concludes.

Receiving The Abolitionist Message

An essential part of the bond fund’s work is “having people tell their stories, and making sure that people most directly impacted are at the forefront of shaping this conversation,” according to Suchan.

“We’re really clear that we want people who are most directly impacted to tell their stories,” he shares. This can be challenging, as there are risks involved in speaking publicly about a pending court case. So, the bond fund educates people to make sure their rights are protected while they tell their stories.

“Anything is Google-able these days, so we want to make sure we protect people’s privacy and fully make people aware of the implications of, do you use your first name, do you use your real name, your last name, your picture,” he explains.

But once these stories are told, they have the power to move the policy needle in seemingly unlikely ways. In addition to the sheriff and police superintendent, Suchan says he’s seen some positive interest from judges as well. He expected judges and others would approach the bond fund with more caution.

“A lot of us are explicitly abolitionist,” Suchan says of the bond fund volunteers. “This is not just the use of bond, but it’s pretrial detention, and it’s jails, and it’s prisons, and it’s policing, and it’s all of it. It’s just one manifestation for a lot of us, myself included.”

“We own that. It’s on our website, it’s pretty obvious that we see our work as accountable to broader movements for social change locally and nationally, particularly Black Lives Matter and other organizers that are working for racial justice and against inequality.”

“That’s sometimes very threatening to people in power, people invested in maintaining the status quo. But we’ve received far less opposition than I thought we would.”

“If our efforts were in isolation, I think it would be different. But the national tide is turning in favor of bond reform. There are places like D.C. and elsewhere—visible examples of alternatives that are working—and judges are saying, ‘This is amazing, this is so much better than the bond system.'”

“Black Lives Matter Chicago movement organizations have done so much to change public perception, which includes judges and heads of jails and everyone else about policing, about racial justice, and about mass incarceration,” Suchan argues. “And I think we’re seeing the effects of that. I think the people in the streets and people in court have started to change people’s thinking and push them to think and imagine alternatives to what we’ve been doing and alternative ways to deal with social harm.”

“We recognize that  one of our roles is to bond out people on the front lines fighting for justice in the streets, and we are excited and glad that people are committing acts of civil disobedience and pushing [for change]. I think allying ourselves with very visible and disruptive actions against the status quo is something that we have been doing and will continue to do.”

*Part 1 of the series on the Chicago Community Bond Fund can be read here.

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Brian Sonenstein

Brian Sonenstein

Publishing Editor at Shadowproof and columnist at Prison Protest.