By Megan E. Rickman and Gustavo S.
As a country, we find ourselves in the midst of a long overdue conversation about the reform of our criminal justice system. The United States of America incarcerates more of its citizens than any other country in the world, and according to The Prison Policy Initiative, Virginia exceeds the national rate for incarceration with 779 per 100,000 people in prison or jail. Of that population, In Richmond, 60% of all jail inmates are legally innocent pretrial detainees held due to their lack of financial ability to pay for bail, an average cost of roughly $1,000.
For Alex Mejias, of Richmond Community Bail Fund, dialogue alone was not enough. He began looking for a way to help alleviate the issue of mass incarceration. Alex sat down with Church Hill People’s News to discuss the importance of the project, how it came to be, and what we can all do to help.
Alex began by giving some background on the project;
“When the Bail Fund idea was brought to us, it just seemed so obvious, This is clearly a broken place in the system, that with not all that much money, we could have an impact on people’s lives, and (it) didn’t seem like something that would be too hard to get started necessarily. We felt like this is something that we can do.”
He stressed the importance of their partnering with the City early in the process, “We wanted to talk to the Richmond Public Defender, because the program that we modeled ourselves off of, the Bronx Freedom Fund, really works in close partnership with the Public Defender, so we wanted to do the same thing here. We approached her and asked her point blank, “Do you see the need for this?”, and she said, “Absolutely.” We took it to step by step. We had a couple of meetings with the Public Defender’s office. We wanted to make sure that they knew what we were doing, that we were working in partnership with them. The first few referrals came directly from the Public Defender’s Office, and we still receive referrals from them.”
Once word got out about the program, Alex and the volunteers at the Richmond Community Bail Fund began to receive calls directly from inmates. They soon found that even the process of making a call was difficult for people that did not have the money to pay for expensive phone cards. He spoke about the challenges of the influx of calls after an article was published highlighting their work.
After the first article came out in the Free Press, people called us directly from jail to get bailed out. Which was great, although that also posed some challenges because the way that the phones work, they’re funky, and it’s always a collect call, and you have to have money on your account; it’s this really complicated process, so it took us a while to even get to the point where we could receive phone calls directly from the jail.
Through local referrals and grassroots connections, the organization began partnering with groups across the city, to help secure the release of citizens awaiting trial. They have been able to not only free the inmates, but help them navigate the complicated criminal justice system, offering them transportation to, and reminders of, upcoming court appearances.
This is where Alex says the organization needs more Volunteers.
We want to try to cultivate a larger network of volunteers that can help out with that type of thing as well. Giving rides, and for some people, actually bailing people out. Physically going to the jail and getting them out.
They are also beginning to participate in Court Watching, a program instituted by Legal Aid Justice Center. “This is a newer thing that we started doing this summer. Court watching is when you go and you sit in the courtroom and you take notes and catalog essentially what’s happening. The Legal Aid Justice Center has started doing this. Going into the courts and observing the amounts of bond that are being set and getting the rates, the charge, all these different data points, so that we have a better idea of what’s actually going on because it’s a little bit of a black box. it’s very difficult to get data, and so we’re watching. It makes that process a lot easier.”
Court Watching, Alex says, “Is also a mechanism of accountability.” As he discusses this he muses about the delicate balance of working with the system, while actively trying to change it. “We don’t want to be in an adversarial position, but we also want to be able to hold them accountable, and influence policy.”
This precarious balancing act spills over into recruitment and fundraising. While many see the immediate need for reform, unfortunately, the root questions that often lie beneath are;
Why should we care?
Why should we help a criminal?
Alex is quick to dispel the myths around the bail system and the people caught up in it;
First of all, it is really important to understand that the people that we are interacting with are not criminals. They have not been convicted of anything. They’ve been charged and that’s really different from a philosophical and legal standpoint. They’re innocent until proven guilty and in our country, we believe that everyone has a right to a fair trial and that in the eyes of the law we should all be treated equally. The way that the current system is set up is, if you are poor the deck is stacked against you because you might not be able to afford bail which is really only there to make sure you show up to your court date. It’s not a punishment. It is just supposed to be an incentive for you to show up to your court date. However, when you have somebody who lands in jail and their court date is two or three months in advance and they’re sitting there in jail, all of a sudden there is a lot of pressure on that person to take a plea deal. To just try to do anything possible to get out of jail. And people plea to felonies all the time in exchange for getting out of jail time.
Alex continues, on how this decision, which feels like a short-term solution, can seriously impact their lives.
Having a felony in Virginia. It really is a life sentence. In Virginia, there are like a thousand different collateral consequences of being a felon. What we believe the value of the bail fund, is that it takes that pressure off so that people can come to court and actually defend themselves in the way that the system was designed to be able to allow them to have that fair trial.
In defense of their clients labeled “criminal” he says;
In a lot of instances, they are alleged crimes. They might not have even committed the crime. One of our clients was a mentally disabled person who walked across the parking lot and the security guard there told him, warned him, before, not to come back and this person (not being of sound mind) didn’t really understand that and he walked across the parking lot and now he’s in jail. And in our minds, that’s not a hardened criminal that we need to be keeping behind bars. But the way that the system functions now, that is exactly what is happening.
As Alex tells more stories it becomes apparent that their average client isn’t some shadowy stereotypical criminal who is awaiting trial on aggravated assault or robbery, but everyday people, who one way or another, found themselves in a bad situation.
These are people that really have no business being in jail but they’re sitting in jail essentially because they’re poor.
The Richmond Community Bail Fund serves as an opportunity for people to secure their release, fight their case, and return to fully functioning members of their community. Through their work, they are helping to restore one of America’s most sacred promises; equal justice for all.
To get involved either by donating or volunteering please visit Richmond Community Bail Fund.
An album release for Alex Mejias latest work, benefiting The Richmond Community Bail Fund will be held at The Robinson Theater on January 27th, for more details about the event please click here.