Bail Fund is ACLU’s latest strategy to draw attention to and end debtors’ prisons
LINCOLN, Neb. – Today the ACLU of Nebraska launched a first of its kind program in Lancaster County, Nebraska to address the practice of jailing low-income Nebraskans who are unable to afford money bail. Although they are presumed innocent and are still awaiting trial, without a thorough individualized inquiry into their ability to pay, these Nebraskans are forced to sit in jail simply because they can’t afford bail. The Lancaster County Bail Fund is designed as a six-month pilot project made possible by a generous anonymous local donor impressed with the ACLU’s criminal justice reform work and will operate as a revolving fund that will post bail for individuals who are held pre-trial in the Lancaster County Jail. When individuals benefiting from the bail fund appear for trial the money is returned to the fund and recycled to assist other Lincoln residents.
The ACLU published Unequal Justice in 2016 which reviewed modern day debtors’ prison practices in Nebraska’s four largest counties: Douglas, Sarpy, Lancaster and Hall and illustrated troubling racial disparities. In 2017 Nebraska lawmakers passed debtors prison reform legislation, LB. 259, with strong support across the political spectrum. The ACLU has monitored the implementation of this legislation through court watching and additional data research and has discovered these reform measures have not been implemented in daily practice.
“The ACLU is honored to follow in the footsteps of successful grassroots activists in other cities with the generous support of innovative local donors to bring fresh attention to the persistent and unfair modern-day debtors prison practices plaguing the Capital city. Far too many of our neighbors are languishing in county jails presumed innocent yet unable to afford to pay bail causing significant harm to their families, employment, and our community at taxpayer expense with little to no benefit to our shared public safety goals. We are excited to unveil this project this week and grateful for the collaborative assistance of Lancaster County Jail officials with this important project,” said Danielle Conrad, executive director, ACLU of Nebraska.
“The money bond system criminalizes poverty,” said Joe Nigro, Lancaster County Public Defender. “We must work to end money bond and move to a system that relies on evidence-based risk assessments. Whether or not someone has $500 does not make them more likely to come back to court, or less of a risk in the community, it just means they have $500. One night in jail can mean the loss of a job, housing and custody of children. Our current system punishes the poor.”
"When people are locked up with criminals, they learn more about criminal behavior. Some of these crimes are just stupid mistakes that people make, and they need a chance to turn their lives around instead of being dragged into a system that causes financial hardship for them and their families. Instead of having people sit out their lives because they can't afford a few hundred dollars for bail, we should be reinvesting in programs to help those who need it and keep them out of criminal behavior," said Larry Wayne of the Re-entry Alliance of Nebraska. "Taxpayers are needlessly paying up to $100 per day to jail people, who in pretrial cases are still presumed innocent. Ideally, judges would not be charging bail of those who cannot afford it. Until then, this bail fund will get people the resources they need so they can get back to their lives and be productive members of society."
The Lancaster County Bail Fund is modeled after similar successful programs across the county. For example, last year on Mother’s Day, Black Lives Matter helped raise more than $500,000 and bailed out mothers jailed in 20 cities across the country. Similar bail funds have been established in Brooklyn, Chicago, Nashville and Seattle.
Katrina Thomas, Smart Justice community organizer at the ACLU of Nebraska, said, "As a formerly incarcerated individual, I know all too well the havoc and stress that being in jail can cause on a family and in one’s life. Being able to bail people out through the bail fund today was such a wonderful experience. All those who we were able to assist were so grateful; one man asked whether this could really be happening. Another teared up when I told him he would be released today. He shook my hand, thanked me several times and told me I had no idea how much this means to him. He'd been sitting in jail for over a week because he didn't have $150 for bail and was so happy to be able to return to his family."
Requests for assistance from incarcerated individuals, families, and community partners are welcomed by the Lancaster County Bail Fund at firstname.lastname@example.org or (402) 613-7468.