DENVER (AP) – For more than four hours on a weekday, three Denver activists sat in the lobby of the city’s downtown jail waiting for seven men – all strangers – to walk out from behind bars.
The activists, who are members of The Denver Justice Project and Black Lives Matter 5280, had paid the men’s bonds as part of their Juneteenth/Father’s Day Bail Out. The bail money was posted as a gift with no questions asked and with the trust that the men would return to court to face their criminal charges.
“It’s the human thing to do,” said Vincent Bowen, a volunteer with Black Lives Matter 5280. “It is a way for us to point out the injustice of the cash bail system.”
The activists planned to spring more than a dozen men jailed in Denver, Arapahoe, Douglas and Adams counties. All are being held on low bonds for petty crimes, and the activists hope the men can be reunited with their families for Father’s Day or be released in honor of the Juneteenth emancipation celebration.
The activists did the same over Mother’s Day weekend for 15 women housed in five Front Range jails. Both efforts are part of the National Bail Out movement, a larger effort to end money bail in the criminal justice system.
This year’s Father’s Day Bail Out is in honor of Michael Marshall, a Denver man who was killed by sheriff’s deputies in the Downtown Detention Center while in the throes of a mental health crisis. Marshall was being held on a $100 bond for a trespassing charge, and his family did not know he had been arrested. The city paid Marshall’s family a $4.6 million settlement.
In the court system, bond is supposed to guarantee people will return to court to face a criminal charge after they have been released from custody. But those who want to abolish money bail say it is punitive, especially to minorities who are arrested at higher rates and are more likely to live in poverty.
Forcing someone to stay in jail on a low bond on a minor charge has long-lasting repercussions, activists said. People may lose their jobs, miss important payments on bills and be separated from their families. Meanwhile, everyone else in society is paying their tax dollars to incarcerate them, Bowen said.
Bond reform discussions are happening across the United States. In Colorado, a statewide panel has been assembled to review bail and bond procedures.
On June 14, one of the men being held in the Denver jail had been given a $10 bond for a charge of disturbing the peace. In addition to the $10 bond, the Denver courts charge a $50 fee to those posting bond, said Elisabeth Epps of The Denver Justice Project. The man did not have $60, so Epps paid his bail and the fee with money the project has received through donations.
The man had been in jail since June 9, and he was scheduled for a July 5 court hearing. Even if he was convicted of the crime, his punishment most likely would not carry that long of a jail sentence, Epps said.
“For $10, it was a no-brainer for us,” she said. “For anyone with a bond less than $1,000, the state doesn’t think they’re dangerous. It’s purely punitive.”
Once his case is closed, the $10 will be returned to the project and used to help someone else. The $50 fee is nonrefundable. Epps hopes the groups eventually raise enough money to establish a permanent bail fund to help low-income people.
The project does not bail out people charged with serious felonies or people being held on charges connected to drunken driving or domestic violence, Epps said. All of the people receiving the gift bails have been screened by attorneys, who also have volunteered with the project.
Other men who were bailed out in Denver were jailed on bonds ranging from $100 to $1,000. Their charges included resisting arrest, assault, destruction of property and warrants. All bonds were paid in cash, and bonding companies were not used, Epps said.
On June 15, Epps went to Douglas County to bail out three men, whose bonds totaled $4,000.
For Michael Diaz-Rivera, a volunteer with Black Lives Matter 5280, the bailout project is a chance to provide an opportunity that he once would have benefited from. As a young man in Colorado Springs, Diaz-Rivera got into minor criminal trouble and found himself repeatedly in jail, mostly for stupid decisions such as missing court dates, and without the money to make bail. His mother did not have the money to help.
Now, he has his life on track with a steady job, and he wants to help others.
“In my life, I’ve been the black man who’s in jail and doesn’t have the money to get out,” Diaz-Rivera said. “From my perspective, bond is just a way to criminalize the poor.”