Margaret Goof, of the Justice Policy Center, recently called on people to honor the legacy of Pride by bailing out LGBT people. The center focuses on incarceration, juvenile justice, and policing technology. 2019 marks the 50th anniversary of The Stonewall Riots. Her call to action couldn’t be more timely.
Mass incarceration disproportionately impacts queer people in general — and queer women in particular. While queer women (defined as lesbian, bisexual, and women who have sex with women) comprise only 3 percent of all U.S. adult women, 42 percent of women in prison and 36 percent of women in jail are queer-identified, goof wrote in a recent Advocate article.
Of the approximately 35,560 queer women currently incarcerated in local jails, many (approximately 20,736) of them have yet to be convicted of a crime and are sitting in a cell simply because they cannot afford cash bail.
During this summer’s Pride Festival of Central PA, I sat at a table for Dauphin County Bail fund with others organizing locally to end cash bail. I saw lots of familiar faces from my days working at the LGBT Center of Central PA and made a lot of new friends. A consistent experience I had was noticing that most people didn’t have a strong understanding of why we were there -- or what the cash bail system is, and how it harms our communities.
One person even told me that she didn’t support our efforts to end cash bail because her daughter was addicted to drugs and needed to be in jail. Where to even begin with that kind of a comment? How about this: imprisonment isn’t a drug rehabilitation service.
What is cash bail?
The reality is that people are locked up in cages for the sole reason that they can’t afford not to be.
The Brooklyn Bail Fund estimates that more than 60 percent of people incarcerated in the U.S. are being detained while they await trial. They haven’t been found guilty of anything; most simply don’t have the resources to pay their bail.
The practice of cash bail impacts the people living at the margins of the margins -- including queer and trans people of color. This is a nation-wide issue, and it has a local impact right here in central Pennsylvania.
The cash bail system traps people in jail awaiting trial.
While awaiting trial in jail, people can lose jobs or housing, experience sexual victimization at the hands of staff or others who are incarcerated, and have their parenting and family lives interrupted.
This system also forces people to choose between possibly waiting in jail for a longer people of time for trial and pleading guilty (even if they are not guilty) to help with getting out sooner.
Is bail an LGBT issue?
Key moments in LGBT history have involved pushback against police and unjust laws.
The 1966 Compton’s Cafeteria Riot started when police sought to crack down on transgender people and others in the San Francisco restaurant for violating laws related to what was called cross-dressing.
The 1969 Stonewall Riots started with a police raid on the bar in New York City, where laws criminalized LGBT people simply for gathering and also for violating bizarre codes related to wearing an appropriate number of articles of gendered clothing.
Similar to the laws that led to the Compton and Stonewall police activity, legislation in the U.S. has sought to define as criminal the ways LGBT people live our lives. Consider anti-sodomy laws that were geared toward regulating the sexual lives of LGBT people and were struck down in the 2003 Lawrence v. Texascase. The recent Public Facilities Privacy & Security Act, the North Carolina law more commonly known as HB2, which sought to criminalize public restroom usage by transgender people. These examples involved bail, or the inability to afford it, for LGBT people.
Unjust: How the Broken Criminal Justice System Fails LGBT People, a 2016 report from the Movement Advancement Project, describes the factors that lead to LGBT people entering the system, the ways LGBT people are treated poorly while in the system, and LGBT people’s lives after conviction.
Anti-LGBT discrimination can lead to difficulty maintaining housing and keeping a job, and discriminatory enforcement of laws (like HIV criminalization) directly targets our communities. LGBT people then face bias in the sentencing process, and face unfair treatment in facilities -- for example, transgender women being placed in male facilities, and LGBT people experiencing sexual victimization by staff and other inmates while incarcerated. After conviction, LGBT people face challenges rebuilding our lives, including lack of support through re-entry programs.
Criminalization of LGBT people starts early in our lives.
In its 2012 report, The Unfair Criminalization of Gay and Transgender Youth, Center for American Progress reported that around 300,000 LGBT youth are arrested or detained each year. More than 60 percent are black or Latinx. Even though LGBT youth “represent just 5-7 % of the nation’s overall youth population, they compose 13-15% of those currently in the juvenile justice system.”
In 2012, the Department of Justice reported that LGBT people experienced sexual victimization while incarcerated at rates higher than their non-LGBT counterparts. Sexual victimization occurred at the hands of other people who are incarcerated as well as staff at these facilities. Transgender adults were the mostly likely to report sexual victimization while incarcerated. Our communities are overpoliced, meaning that we interact with the criminal justice system more than non-LGBT people, and we experience it more harshly once we’re in it.
Bail is often set based on how much of a flight risk the accused is assumed to be, and once again, LGBT people face bias in this key area of the criminal justice system. LGBT people may be deemed a higher flight risk because the court system does not recognize our connection to chosen families, and because systemic oppression ensures that the most marginalized among us are less likely to have a job, formal education credentials, and other indicators of community connection that the system looks for. So our LGBT siblings are left with higher bail amounts that they are already less able to pay because of all the factors leading to them being less economically secure.
Also, cash bail impacts us for the very basic reason that we’re people who are subject to the system that is in place here. Therefore we need to understand how bail works and stand in solidarity with all who are impacted.
How can you get involved locally?
The idea for Dauphin County Bail Fund came out of local organizers working through This Stops Today Harrisburg. TSTH an action-oriented social justice organization that aims to address institutional and personal racial bias through community engagement, consciousness-raising, civil disobedience, legislation, and reflection. The group seeks police accountability and restorative justice, as well as equity in the political, social, and economic realms for systemically disenfranchised people of color.
Organizers from This Stops Today have collaborated with other local organizers from groups including Decarcerate PA, Democratic Socialists of America - Harrisburg Chapter, and National Lawyers Guild - Central PA Chapter in the creation of Dauphin County Bail Fund. DCBF is part of the National Bail Fund Network, which provides mentorship and resources in getting started and being effective.
Dauphin County Bail Fund is a non-profit community organization dedicated to freeing our community members from cages and ending the practice of cash bail. That’s a key part: we want to reduce the harm in an immediate sense for those experiencing it, but ultimately the group seeks system change.
Get involved by volunteering to help with bail fund operations, raise funds and spread the word about the bail fund, or donate to it yourself.
John Z. Murphy Jr. spent 42 days in Northampton County Jail on misdemeanor charges because he couldn’t come up with $800 in bail money. (AP, July 28, 2018)
Pennsylvania houses more pre-trial inmates than all but a handful of states. (Vera Institute of Justice, a nonprofit that seeks to improve fairness in the courts)
Pennsylvania houses more pre-trial inmates than all but a handful of states. (Vera Institute of Justice). In contrast, New Jersey all but eliminated cash bail last year, replacing it with a system in which judges jail only those defendants who are deemed to be a significant flight risk or a danger to commit more crimes.
In Cumberland County, according to The (Carlisle) Sentinel (April, 2017): In 2014, more than a quarter of all defendants in Cumberland County who had monetary bail imposed had their bail reduced and were later released without having to put up any cash, according to an analysis of court records conducted by The Sentinel.
In Pennsylvania, Allegheny County has taken the lead regarding the use of such risk assessments. In Philadelphia, District Attorney Larry Krasner announced in February that his office would no longer seek monetary bails for many misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies.
Increasingly, state policymakers are re-examining the purpose of bail. Six in 10 adults in U.S. jails have not been convicted of a crime. They are locked up awaiting trial, mostly because they’re too poor to post bail. They are legally presumed innocent, but many spend months and even years awaiting trial. Often, they feel pressure to take a plea deal rather than spend more time in jail. (Pew Educational Trust, 2017)
Dauphin County Bail Fund (DCBF) uses the following interactive factors to evaluate whether we will assist someone who applies for our help paying bail: