Each year in Missouri, thousands of people are held in jails, many of them before being convicted of any crime, simply because they cannot afford the cost of their bail.
To combat this problem, one local group is working on a short-term solution to this problem with a Community Bail Fund – despite the additional complications of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
Walking into Tory Kassabaum’s backyard, it’s easy to be overwhelmed by the number of native wildflowers and plants. It’s a veritable pollinator utopia just blocks away from the busy streets of downtown Columbia.
Kassabaum walks through her garden pointing out some of her favorite plants, like horse mint and joe pye weed, while her 18-month old daughter, Orella, plays and picks flowers nearby.
Kassabaum, with the “help” of her daughter, is putting together a wildflower bouquet for “Bouquets for Bailouts” – a project that Kassabaum created to raise money for the community bail fund through Race Matters, Friends.
She and her daughter make bouquets and then deliver them to anyone who donates to the bail fund – whether it’s $5 or $500.
"The need to fundraise is just constant, and then, I love to make bouquets," Kassabaum said. "So, I was like, 'Why am I not just doing this?' I give bouquets as gifts anyway."
Kassabaum added that the need to fundraise is especially important now, as people continue to be arrested and held on bail, and the group's traditional fundraising efforts have been put on hold or rescheduled due to the ongoing Coronavirus pandemic.
Kassabaum is a member of the core team for the Community Bail Fund. They go and bail people out of jail if they can’t afford it themselves, and she said it’s a rare day when the organization doesn’t get a call from someone seeking help.
“It really doesn't make sense that you could be stuck in jail solely because you can't pay. You know, someone gets put in jail and their parents can pay the thousand dollars to get them out and they’re out like within a couple hours,” Kassabaum said. “And then someone whose family can't support them or they personally don't have that money – they could be stuck in jail for weeks.”
According to the Vera Institute of Justice, in 2015, people being held before their trial constituted 79% of the total jail population in Missouri.
Breanna Heidari is another member of the Bail Fund team, and they explained the process.
First, they take calls from people, sometimes the person who have been arrested and other times concerned family members or friends, and if the person meets the criteria: a Boone County resident, charged with a non-violent offense and a bail of $2,000 or less, they go to the Boone County jail and bail them out.
“People in our community, their lives get completely halted because they can't afford $200 to get out of jail,” Heidari said. “Or if they do then like, ‘Where's that money coming from?’”
Heidari said many of the people they bail out are arrested for minor charges like failure to appear or driving without an updated license, and they added that the COVID-19 pandemic has just made things more complicated, as many people have lost jobs and income, and court dates continue to be moved around.
“And so, they stay in jail until the court date, and sometimes the court date could be the next day. Sometimes it could be a month. Sometimes it can be up to three plus months, especially around COVID,” Heidari said. “There's this person I bailed out, and they said they were there for at least two months because they kept on pushing the court date back.”
Pilar Weiss is the director of the National Bail Fund Network, a group of about 80 bail funds throughout the country, and she said they are seeing this issue throughout the country.
“Under COVID, as court systems are having to adapt, everything is slower and has delays. We're seeing people being held for much longer periods of time in incredibly dangerous situations," Weiss said. "Jails and prisons are always dangerous due to violence, but that’s all magnified with them being an incredibly concentrated hotspot with COVID infection and transmission right now.”
Weiss said that following the death of George Floyd at the hands of the Minneapolis police in May, and the resulting protests, the public became more aware of the need for bail funds. And donations came flooding in.
“But it’s not actually a solution, right? It's a band aid,” Weiss warned. “It's a very temporary intervention. We can't bail out every person, right?”
Weiss said she hopes that as people learn more about bail funds, they also get involved in other reform – in policing, mass incarceration, immigrant detention – and she added that the end goal is for community bail funds to not need to exist in the first place.
“Right now, it's [the money] needed for freedom, but hopefully down the road, those funds can be used for parks and libraries and food and education,” Weiss said. “All kinds of things that community members want to put their resource toward.”
Back in Tory Kassabaum’s back yard, toddler Orella is busy watering some weeds she just plucked from the garden. Kassabaum said she hopes more people will get involved locally with the Bail Fund – because the need is there.
She added that, to her, this work is vital. “Eventually, we'd love to not be in business,” Kassabaum said. “We'd love to not have to bail anyone out because cash bail is eliminated.”
But for the moment, she does what she can and shares the work with little Orella.
“I just really wanted her to see like we're doing something, even if it's like really simple. It can feel really big to kids, when they open their eyes to all this inequality in the world, and she's not going to live in a world that doesn't have that,” Kassabaum said. “But I want her to see there are things we can do within our daily life.”