By Clarissa Sosin
A feud has broken out over a growing civil rights group tactic to reform the criminal justice system in New York City. Organizers and volunteers with the Mass Bail Out — a collaborative month-long action organized by the RFK Human Rights group to shine a light on issues within New York City’s criminal justice cash bail system — have been pitted against Queens District Attorney Richard A. Brown over the effectiveness and safety of their tactics.
“It exemplifies that Queens continually has stayed behind and on the wrong side of these issues in New York City,” said Co-Executive Director of VOCAL-NY Alyssa Aguilera about Brown’s stance.
VOCAL-NY is one of the main organizations involved in the Mass Bail Out.
Brown stated his opposition to the effort, which solicited dozens of volunteers to bail out women and juveniles detained in the jails on Rikers Island, who cannot afford to post bail, in an op-ed published in the New York Post on Oct. 5.
“The consequences of this well-intentioned, but ill-conceived, plan will fall most heavily on the people who live in the neighborhoods to which these defendants will return. One can only conclude that someone, somewhere, will be hurt as a result of this project.” Brown wrote.
The long-termed district attorney was one of numerous city officials and bail bonds advocates that have spoken out against the Mass Bail Out due to concerns about public safety. His office did not respond to a request for comment for this story.
Managing Attorney at RFK Human Rights and one of the organizers of the Mass Bail Out Wade McMullen said that he felt there needed to be an open and honest conversation about public safety and the role that cash bail plays.
“For far too long we've let fear based rhetoric and fear mongering result in really bad criminal justice policy. Not just bad and expensive, but unfair and unjust,” he said. “We need to talk about how the whole system works and how pretrial incarceration itself reduces public safety. Ripping kids from classrooms, mothers from their children and their families, caretakers, income providers.”
The Mass Bail Out has three goals McMullen said. The first is to free the incarcerated women and juveniles who cannot afford bail. The second is to expose people to the realities of a cash bail system and to mobilize them to fight for reform.
“Third is to shine a light on injustice for the broader community so people can see and understand what bail is, how money bail is being used as a mechanism to keep humans in cages instead of as a mechanism for release as intended,” said McMullen. “It's a way for us to expand people's imagination about decarceration.”
But McMullen emphasized that the effort is not a solution.
“It's an intervention that is needed right now on the long road toward structural reform,” he said.
Brown also wrote in his op-ed that as a foundation and not a family member or friend, RFK has no incentive to make sure the defendants show up for their court date. The president of Empire Bail Bonds, Michelle Esquenazi asked in a previous interview with the Eagle what happens if an inmate released through the foundation doesn’t show up to court?
Whenever an inmate is released from jail through a bail bondsman agency and they jump bail, bounty hunters are assigned to find the person. Several request for comment from RFK Human Rights group about plans for bail jumpers was not returned.
But, in a previous interview, McMullen said that they expect to have a similar return to court rate as the various community bail funds that already operate throughout the city.
One is the Brooklyn Bail Fund, which helps out people facing misdemeanor charges with bail set at $2,000 or less. According to the Brooklyn Bail Fund's data, their clients have a return to court rate of 95 percent. Most of the time it's as simple as sending a text message reminding the person of their court date, or helping them find childcare or transportation that will ensure that they show up at court, said McMullen.
In his op-ed, Brown also said that victims have been forgotten and that the Mass Bail Out will endanger them by releasing their perpetrators.
Erica Ford, a volunteer with the Mass Bail Out and the CEO of South Jamaica-based anti-violence organization LIFE Camp, refuted that argument saying that often times people are both victims and perpetrators.
“Half the time they can’t tell the difference between the victim or the perpetrator. There’s no love there for either one in terms of how the systems set up,” said Ford, who is also the co-creator of the Crisis Management System, an anti-violence network overseen and managed by the Mayor’s Office to Prevent Gun Violence. “People don’t get help. People don’t get the services and support.”
She said that the people being bailed out were only still incarcerated because they are poor. Releasing them back to their communities would give them access to services and support systems that would allow them to better fight their cases. Posting bail was the human thing to do, she said.
“If we were bailing out a bunch of white kids from the Upper East Side, I wonder if the conversation would be the same,” Ford said.