In 2023, less than ten years after the Chicago Community Bond Fund (CCBF) was founded, its primary function—bonding people out of jail—will become obsolete. That is the year that the Pretrial Fairness Act (PFA) will go into full effect, making Illinois the first state to fully abolish cash bail.
Signed by Governor J.B. Pritzker on February 22, the PFA will also limit eligibility for pretrial incarceration, reduce penalties for violations such as missed court dates, and require judges to reconsider electronic monitoring of each individual every sixty days, among other policy changes.
The CCBF began as an ad hoc collective with the short-term goal to get DeSean Pittman’s family and loved ones out of jail. In late August 2014, just two weeks after the murder of Michael Brown sparked an uprising in Ferguson, Missouri, Chicago police shot and killed seventeen-year-old Pittman in Chatham.
When Pittman’s friends and family held a vigil in his memory, the police disrupted the gathering and arrested eight people. While some were released without charges, five of them were charged with mob action and incarcerated in Cook County Jail. Collectively, their bonds totaled $30,000.
When members of the National Lawyers Guild read about the arrests, they reached out to Pittman’s family on Facebook and offered to help them fundraise. The first person they bonded out was his mother, who otherwise would have missed her own son’s funeral.
For months to come, NLG and the family organized raffles, hosted house parties and fish fries, and created online crowdfunding pages. In December 2014, they finally raised enough money to free the last person, DeSean’s cousin, Derrick Wince. It was Derrick’s mother, Jeanette Wince, who suggested that the group create a permanent bond fund. “The question came up: what are we going to do once we get everyone out?” she said. “And we all looked at each other and said, let’s keep going. Because there are so many people who need us.”
“We were all very happy to get everyone out. But that was four months that her son had been caged,” said Sharlyn Grace, a co-founder and former executive director of CCBF. “He had lost his job, and he had been separated from his loved ones, and was traumatized from being in jail.”
At first, the intention was for CCBF to remain an all-volunteer community project. “No one expected to form a nonprofit that years later would have millions of dollars in resources and multiple staff positions,” said Grace. “I think the people coming together to form [CCBF] by and large had critiques of the non-profit industrial complex and weren’t necessarily looking to build an institution.”
In 2015, however, CCBF decided that in order to facilitate fundraising, it needed to apply for 501(c)3 status. “The primary activity of a bail fund is raising money,” Grace explained. “And that’s easier done when those donations are tax exempt.” The bond fund remained all-volunteer until 2017, when it hired its first staff person to sustain a rapidly-growing organization that was becoming difficult to manage on a volunteer basis.
From the beginning, CCBF saw themselves not as a charity, but as a tool for organizing. The founders of CCBF initially considered limiting the fund to political arrests, such as those that occured at protests. Ultimately, they decided to expand their criteria, but to still prioritize freeing people who were arrested at protests.
“Because of our theory of change, our commitment to movement work, and our belief that grassroots organizing is what achieves social change, there was an agreement early on to have an expansive role, but also to prioritize those sorts of political arrests, to prioritize support for grassroots social movement,” said Grace. She described the “magnifying effect” of “provid[ing] a resource that lessens the state’s power to repress social movements.”
CCBF uses eleven factors to determine whose bonds to pay, including a person’s ability to pay bond, access to existing support systems, medical needs, immigration status, and more. Input in the decision comes not from CCBF staff, but from a rotating Review Committee, which currently includes movement leaders from Black and Pink Chicago, Survived and Punished, and other community organizations.
CCBF posted bond for forty-five people who were in jail or on electronic home monitoring in its first year of operation as a nonprofit, fifty-nine people in its second, and sixty-eight people in its third. In its fourth year, that number jumped to 108. These bonds were paid through use of a revolving fund, meaning that because courts return bonds once a case is closed, CCBF could keep using returned bond money.
But with around 6,000 people incarcerated in Cook County Jail at any given time, and over ninety percent of them incarcerated pre-trial, CCBF was still only making a small dent in the number of people who were locked up because they could not afford to buy their freedom.
And while paying someone’s bond could be life-changing and life-saving, doing so couldn’t reverse the fact that many people had already lost their jobs, housing, and even children by the time CCBF got them out. “It became extremely clear to us quite early on that this was a hamster wheel,” Grace said, “and that we could stay on this hamster wheel for a long time … Just bailing people out was not enough, alone, for us to end money bond.”
In 2016, the Chicago Community Bond Fund joined the Coalition to End Money Bond, a collective of over a dozen Chicago-based organizations working together to abolish the bail system. The coalition includes research and advocacy groups, legal nonprofits, faith-based organizations, and grassroots community organizing collectives.
“I’ve been in coalitions where all of the organizations are very similar, with the same theories of change,” said Will Tanzman, executive director of The People’s Lobby, a community organizing group that belongs to the Coalition. “But what made this coalition successful was that it was so eclectic.”
The Coalition and its various members hosted direct actions, lobby days, teach-ins, and days of prayer to gather support for ending money bond. They also met with legislators, engaged in litigation, and turned out their members to courtwatch. Through their close experiences working against the money bond system, CCBF brought an expertise that guided the coalition.
“We are the only organization [in the coalition] that is focused on money bond and pretrial incarceration,” said Keisa Reynolds, the transitional executive director of CCBF. “And we are also an abolitionist organization, which I think brings a really important perspective to the Coalition.”
In 2016, CCBF referred two plaintiffs for a class action lawsuit which alleged that pretrial incarceration based solely on an individual’s inability to pay bond was unconstitutional. The lawsuit was dismissed, but it led to a new order issued by Chief Judge Timothy Evans of the Circuit Court of Cook County in September 2017, which required that judges only set bonds in amounts that people could pay. Within months, the Cook County Jail population fell from 7,500 people to 6,000.
CCBF policy analyst Briana Payton said that, because of General Order 18.8.A, advocates were able to “point to Cook County as a case study that shows that when you reduce reliance on money bond, when you let people free while they’re awaiting trial, you don’t have these horrible outcomes that people always want to threaten, like that no one is going to go to court and that crime is going to go up. Those things didn’t happen.”
As the order was in the process of being implemented, more than seventy volunteers from the Coalition observed bond court to compile data on whether judges were complying with the order. They found that although the use of money bond had dropped significantly, some judges were still setting unreasonably high bonds, which were disproportionately impacting Black and Latinx people.
In February 2017, the Coalition worked to introduce the Equal Justice for All Act to Springfield. The Act was a precursor to the PFA, and would have eliminated money bond and reduced pretrial incarceration. In July 2019, the Illinois Network for Pretrial Justice launched, bringing organizations from across the state to fight for the abolition of money bond.
The Pretrial Fairness Act was then written by members of the Coalition, including former CCBF executive director Sharlyn Grace. It was introduced to the State Senate in November 2020 by Senator Robert Peters, formerly the political director of The People’s Lobby and an organizer with the Coalition.
In January 2020, Governor Pritzker announced his support for ending money bond. In February, the Coalition and the Illinois Network for Pretrial Justice bused 250 people to Springfield to lobby legislators and host a rally in support of the bill.
Less than a month later, the COVID-19 pandemic struck. The legislature shut down, halting the progress of the PFA. CCBF, along with the coalition as a whole, shifted their focus to advocating for decarceration in the wake of the pandemic, citing COVID-19 outbreaks in prisons and jails as a death sentence for incarcerated people.
In the summer of 2020, George Floyd was murdered by Minneapolis police, and the ensuing uprisings created a seismic shift in dominant narratives around policing and incarceration. The protests brought with them a slew of arrests, with 240 people arrested in Chicago on May 31 alone. CCBF set to work paying their bonds.
“I don’t think anyone believes that the Pretrial Fairness Act would have passed as quickly or in as complete a form without the uprisings last summer really creating a need for elected officials to respond to the demands of the movement,” Grace said.
Meanwhile, they were taking in a windfall of donations, despite not actively fundraising for the revolving fund. According to Reynolds, the bond fund received over $5 million from individual donors, with additional donations from foundations. As a result, by the end of 2020 they were able to pay over $2.5 million dollars to free 310 people, over 250 of whom were arrested on protest-related charges.
CCBF started paying about as many bonds per week as they had previously been paying per year. On social media, the group encouraged people to look beyond bail funds as the primary recipient of their donations, asking them to contribute instead to Black-led, grassroots collectives like Assata’s Daughters, GoodKids MadCity, and SOUL.
“Bail funds are not going to end white supremacy or abolish the police alone,” Grace said. “We need long-term grassroots organizing that builds community power for change. And a bail fund is almost like an immediate gratification donation… But the work of organizing for abolition is not immediate at all. It’s long term; it’s often invisible.”
On the heels of the summer uprisings, the campaign to end money bond was propelled towards victory. In September, the Coalition and the Illinois Network for Pretrial Justice hosted a statewide day of action in support of the bill. In November, they brought over 300 people to a virtual lobby day.
While the legislature hadn’t met since the spring, the coalition found out that there would be a lame duck session in January. After the summer uprisings, Springfield’s Black Caucus had been moved to pass a racial justice package, and the coalition pushed for the PFA to be included. On January 13, 2021, the PFA passed as part of a larger criminal justice omnibus bill.
The People’s Lobby’s Will Tanzman said that a lesson from this win is that “big changes are possible when you have the intersection of movement moments and longer-term organizing.”
“This didn’t just get passed in the midnight hour in January,” said Briana Payton. “It was years of organizing. It was years of lobbying.”
The Chicago Community Bond Fund has done what many abolitionist collectives seek to do: it has played a role in making itself obsolete. In the process, CCBF served as a model for bail funds across the country, only two of which had been established by the time CCBF was founded.
Pilar Weiss, the director of the National Bail Fund Network, said CCBF was a “northstar example” for bail funds around the country because “they were started out of movement organizing and then were the anchor for a coalition.”
While a lot of bail funds faced pressure from their boards to prioritize maximizing the volume of people they could bail out, CCBF demonstrated that “you could bail out hundreds of people, and then if you didn’t actually abolish the system, they would just arrest hundreds more people. There was never going to be enough money,” Weiss said. “Chicago used the bail fund as a tool, an organizing tool, always.”
Though CCBF’s main function may now be obsolete, the bond fund is here to stay for at least the next few years. Until 2023, when the PFA goes into effect, there will be many more bonds to pay. And in the meantime, CCBF’s advocacy team is expanding with the intention of protecting the bill.
Payton said that CCBF and supporters of the PFA need to remain vigilant to ensure that the win is not reversed or watered down. “Laws get changed all the time,” she said. “We need to watch out for people who oppose this bill, who may want to get legislation passed to either completely repeal this bill or to change it so much so that it does not have the decarceral impact that we want it to have.”
In 2019, for instance, New York passed bail reforms which prohibited the use of cash bail for the majority of offenses, and which should have kept ninety percent of people who were arrested from being incarcerated pre-trial. But law enforcement and politicians used fear-mongering tactics to convince the public that the reforms were causing a rise in crime, and the media followed suit. A year later, the state rolled back some of the reforms, adding more offenses to the list of bail-eligible crimes.
Payton warned that in Chicago, opponents of the bill might also find work-arounds that create false alternatives to incarceration. She referenced the growing use of electronic monitoring, which uses often unreliable technology to track a person’s location before their trial. For example, although last year the Cook County Sheriff’s budget was cut by $25 million after advocacy from CCBF and the Budget for Black Lives campaign, Tom Dart later acquired an additional $13 million to fund an expansion of his electronic monitoring program.
“People think that if people are not going to jail they should be on electronic monitoring because that’s how we will know we’re safe,” Payton explained. “But electronic monitoring is literally out here ruining people’s lives. It does the same thing to people that happens when they are incarcerated. It causes them to not be able to work, to not be able to contribute to their household, to not be able to take care of their kids. It exacerbates mental health issues. It exacerbates addiction. It exacerbates everything because of the way it restricts people’s freedom.”
Part of protecting the PFA means using popular education to combat these false narratives about public safety, pre-empting the fear-mongering tactics that opponents of the law may use to try to overturn it.
Payton expressed a need to get people on the “same page” that “ incarceration makes people less safe… if we can just make people understand that pretrial freedom is a public safety strategy, and pre-trial incarceration is not an effective public safety strategy, that’s a large part of the work that needs to be done.”
In addition to influencing dominant narratives about the law, Tanzman also emphasized the importance of electoral organizing to keep the elected officials who supported the bill in office.
If the Prerial Fairness Act is successfully implemented, Reynolds says, CCBF will consider sunsetting.
“We’ve always been pretty transparent with funders and with staff as people are hired that CCBF would want to sunset once we achieved our mission,” they said. “And that was something we decided because we don’t want to exist for the sake of existing, just sort of replicating the non-profit industrial complex.”
Though there haven’t been formal conversations about it yet, CCBF is planning to do a series of retreats to decide what their future will hold. Input in this process would come from staff and stakeholders such as members of the coalition, people that have been bonded out, and the board.
Reynolds said it will likely be at least four years before CCBF decides to disband. Before sunsetting, CCBF would want to ensure that the PFA is being implemented properly, and they plan to remain vigilant in protecting the law.
“If we were to sunset, we would do so very strategically, looking at where whatever resources we still have can be redistributed,” they said. “It would be amazing to redistribute resources to organizations that are meeting the needs of different communities, particularly grassroots organizations… I would really want to uplift abolitionists and mutual aid work that is happening across the city.”
Anna Attie is a contributor to the Weekly. She last wrote about Metropolitan Water Reclamation District candidates’ plans to address urban flooding.