Last month we reported that a collaborative push between the Denver Justice Project and Black Lives Matter 5280 raised more than $20,000 to bail out women of color in time for Mother’s Day. The effort was an attempt to raise issue with America’s penchant for cash bail, which opponents say places unfair burdens on people in poverty and helps explain why people of color are more likely to be incarcerated.
Now, that group is working on a similar effort to free men of color in time for Father’s Day and Juneteenth, both of which will be recognized this weekend. But Elisabeth Epps, who is spearheading the campaign in Denver, says it’s a tougher slog this time around.
“Most of us are familiar with mainstream images of black men as predators,” Epps told Denverite. “In lots of ways, we’re taught that men of color are to be feared or belong in the cages that they’re in.”
For Mother’s Day, Epps’s campaign exploded with donations. They reached that $20,000 number in a matter of days. This time, so far, they’ve reached just about half of that. I should note that the campaign page, as of the time this was written, has more than $20,000 listed, but $11,000 of that was left over from the Mother’s Day push or refunded after women who were bailed out appeared in court.
Epps said that donation “fatigue” might account for slower going this time around since the last campaign wasn’t that long ago, but she said their overall reach has grown since then and suspects that more dogged stigma around black and brown men is a contributing factor.
“I definitely have more pushback in casual conversations” about these bailouts, she said. Men, “they’re not as sympathetic.”
Ultimately, her campaign is about abolishing cash bonds. We checked in to see where Denver is on that.
Some states and cities in the last few years have completely abolished cash bonds for low-level crimes (read more about that in our last story). The idea here is that bailouts disproportionately imprison people in poverty. Since race and poverty are deeply intertwined, people in Epps’ camp see this as a racial justice issue.
While sweeping change in Denver or Colorado would have to pass a legislative process, a spokesperson for District Attorney Beth McCann’s office pointed us to a list of priorities in an annual report that her administration has lifted up since she took office in 2017.
One of those bullet points is their “SMART Pre-Trial” program. That stands for “Supervision Matrix Assessment & Recommendation Tool,” which is an actual matrix of judicial jargon that’s meant to help sort people in initial hearings and help let people go who aren’t considered flight risks or dangers to society. Her report also details a new emphasis on pretrial reviews.
According to the report: “…risk assessments are being used at an earlier time in the criminal justice process to better identify those who do not need to be held in jail (and those that do), enabling the release of qualified persons, when appropriate, on Personal Recognizance bonds…”
That annual report cites an overall decrease in jail populations. The Pretrial Justice Institute, a Department of Justice program that monitors this step in the process, reports that Denver’s pretrial release rate has risen from 55 percent to 65 percent since the city began working with the SMART program.
Epps says she’s noticed this since McCann took office.
“That is a mark that I think should be interpreted positively,” she said, but she’d still like to see some more permanent changes.
“The thing that makes it problematic is that it’s still discretionary,” she said. “It should be a matter of law that misdemeanors don’t have money bail. It shouldn’t be who happens to be in office at this moment.”
So far, Epps and crew have bailed out seven men and expect to hit about 20 by this weekend. The first one, she said, was a $10 bail. He had ten bucks, she said, just not the additional $50 he needed to cover associated fees.
June 17 update: Father’s Day bailout gets a boost
As of Sunday, June 17, the Father’s Day bailout campaign had raised more than $34,000, about $2,000 short of their overall goal.
Epps said that awareness that raising money has been a tougher proposition for men motivated a few supporters to make large donations.
She also said the money left after this event will stay in the bank as a longer-term bailout fund, a nest egg for a more formalized organization that she expects to launch in the next few months.
Epps also said that the group’s effort has extended beyond municipal jails to federal immigration cases. She plans to post bail for a man who has been held for more than a year in the private GEO detention center in Aurora.
Concerns about immigration enforcement has also made Epps and team cautious about who they choose to post bonds for. She said they’re afraid of putting someone suddenly in the hands of federal immigration enforcement, especially after she saw ICE agents waiting for someone to be released at the Arapahoe County jail.