When Anthony Body walks into the Cuyahoga County Public Defender's Office on Lakeside Avenue, he cheerfully waves to the receptionist and heads into the back of the building to pick up today's stack of referrals. This is his morning routine. The legal office is one of the places where Body scouts local defendants who are being held in the jail across the street, awaiting their chance to see the judge, some of whom he may spring from their cells by the end of the day.
On Dec. 2, 2019, he thumbs the sheaf of papers and steps into the spitting snow of another cold morning in Cleveland, tucking the referrals under his coat and heading into the Justice Center, where the bulk of his day will be spent.
Body works with the Bail Project. He was hired in June 2019, along with Kareem Henton, to help give a more immediate shape to the argument for reform. Together, they're "bail disruptors," the boots on the ground of a national movement to downshift pretrial detention policies and replace them with a more just system. They work out of a small office in Tower City, overlooking Morton's Steakhouse, and sometimes when they're describing their work it feels like they've seen it all. Criminal justice is a suite of variations on a single theme, so maybe they have.
"We're all human," Body says. "We're all one or two mistakes away from being in jail or being homeless. The system sort of sets people up."
In the Justice Center, in Courtroom 12A each morning and each afternoon, the county's 34 judges process felony arraignments like a livestock auction. This is where we see the First Appearance docket, a tool set up in 2016 to expedite all the things that need to happen before an actual trial. Judges rotate through this duty day to day, so a defendant can never be quite sure which judge will be setting their bail. On Dec. 2, it's Judge John O'Donnell. He reads cash bail amounts into the record, addressing orange jumpsuits on the in-house monitor (defendants who are already detained in the jail) and several plainclothes individuals in the courtroom. These are people who were arrested only days earlier, who haven't yet been convicted of anything. A 22-year-old Mayfield Heights man is called forward on a concealed weapons felony charge. Bail set at $5,000. Case management hearing in one week.
Bail set at $2,500.
Case management hearing in one week.
After the arraignments, gathering his names, Body retreats to a table in the Justice Center's high-ceilinged atrium. He leafs through the referrals from earlier in the morning, getting a sense of who might need his help the most. He checks these defendants' priors, he balances the dollar amount of their bail against his organization's capacity to pay, he notes the risk level of their possible failure to appear in court (a sliding scale determined by the public defender's office). Some names come with a long history of violent episodes or a concerning degree of recidivism. In those cases: "I'm not touching it," he says. "Patterns show it's not happenstance." This isn't a free ride, as critics might have countered early on. There's a plan, a method.
Other names are first-timers in the annals of the Cuyahoga County Court of Common Pleas. Do they have kids at home? Do they have a job? How long have they been in jail? Where's home? Much of that information is on the page, helping Body hone his approach. For any open questions, the bail disruptors have their work cut out of them.
By the end of the morning, he's whittled that original list to six possible cases — six inmates eligible for the sorts of services he provides. The next stop is the county jail, housed in the same building, where he'll work with Henton to talk to these people and get a sense of how the Bail Project can help. Maybe they'll need a ride to their court hearings once they're released from jail. Maybe they could use help securing a state ID card. Maybe they just need to be told that this is going to be okay and given a few text reminders to show up for their case management hearing in a week. We'll figure it out together, Body tells them.
The Bail Project set up shop in Cleveland this past summer. It's part of a national experiment that now spans 19 jurisdictions as relatively diverse as Tulsa; Chicago; San Diego; and Augusta, Georgia. In each community, bail disruptors like Body and Henton work to free men and women from pretrial detention. The guiding principle is that old American yarn that individuals are to be presumed innocent until proven guilty.
More often than not, though, the cash bail system erects a two-tier system of justice, wherein those who can afford freedom have it. Those who can't, don't.
According to the Bail Project, the American tax base spends around $14 billion each year to incarcerate men and women who haven't been convicted of anything.
"Just putting someone in jail and attaching a dollar amount to it is not guaranteeing that they will return to court," Body says. "One thing I will say is that they'll end up right back in the system if they can't afford bail." He's had his own brushes with the wrong side of the law and knows all too well the grim pressures of the courts. Thankfully, he points out, he's been in a position to have the necessary support systems to shepherd him from arrest to freedom. Not all are so lucky. "This was a chance for me to walk in my own truths in a sense and have that tenacity to be the voice for the folks who aren't able to spread their voices as loud as they would want."
Body and Henton have bailed out more than 175 men and women in Cuyahoga County since they started. On a national scale, the Bail Project has bailed out more than 9,000 men and women in the U.S. And that's just the start of a moonshot that may very well change how this country treats its people.
* * *
In Body and Henton's local bail-outs, they've notched a 95-percent success rate in terms of ensuring that those defendants make it back to their scheduled court dates. "Our model is showing the city of Cleveland and Cuyahoga County that folks will return back to court without having a dollar amount attached to it if you give them the services and the assistance they need to rehabilitate or to be a functioning citizen within society," Body says.
In the interest of laying down some working definitions, let's review what any of this even means.
When someone is arrested and charged with a crime, they're not yet convicted of that crime. But in the meantime, before their trial begins, they're typically held in jail. They can get out of jail by posting bail (in cash, an amount determined by a judge) or securing a bond (provided by a third-party bondsman, with interest attached). The idea is that the bail money serves as collateral to ensure the defendant returns to court. When all is said and done, if the case is dismissed or the defendant found guilty, the cash returns to the person who posted it. If the defendant fails to appear in court, well, they can kiss that cash goodbye.
There are several types of bail, but, generally, what's required is full payment of the amount set by the judge. Another option is to pay a bondsman a 10-percent fee, and the bondsman will then take care of the full cash bail payment. When bail is set at $5,000, then, a $500 payment is often the shortcut needed to spring an individual from jail. And when day-to-day life includes bills, bus tickets and breakfast at the corner store, a $500 bail payment can be cataclysmic. This is the backbone of the bail reform movement: Pretrial justice is meted out unevenly, based on who can afford cash bail, and so the whole of the justice system is unequal — stressed by this financial pressure to the point that what we have in America is two systems that operate side by side, almost invisibly.
Body and Henton know this too well. They've both worked as activists in varying capacities around Cleveland for years. Working for the Bail Project was a natural fit.
Body says he comes to this work with what he calls a Batman/Bruce Wayne lifestyle, honing two viewpoints on how the criminal justice system works locally. He served on the Cleveland Community Police Commission as that group rose out of the ashes of the city's consent decree with the U.S. Department of Justice. He ran for the Ward 9 seat on Cleveland City Council in 2017.
"I was able to sit at the table and have a voice at the table with policies, laws, legislators and have that seat in the room, but I was also able to be Batman at night and be out there with the folks who were being affected by a lot of these issues and laws and unjust practices that were happening," he says. This is something that's often missing, he insists, from the discourse in Cleveland — a willingness to walk through two worlds and to understand two ideas at once.
Henton says he sought a position with the Bail Project's Cleveland office after he'd already been collaborating on this type of work with Black Mama Bailout. He'd teamed up with the organization to free black women from jail. Each year, around Mother's Day, the national organization raises funds to release black women from pretrial detention (123 mamas in 37 cities in 2019, thanks to more than 17,000 individual donations). "When we free our own people, we deny this assessment that they are 'risky,' and we say: not in our name," project director Arissa Hall told Global Citizen last year. "We, the community, are saying we don't want you to hold someone [in detention] because you deem them risky to me."
In January 2019, Henton recalls, he bailed out a woman who'd aged out of foster care and traveled to Ohio seeking her biological family. That didn't work out, and she soon ended up homeless. Then she caught a burglary charge in Cuyahoga County.
"Desperate, you know what I mean?" Henton says. "She caught a desperate charge. First time ever being in any trouble. ... She had none of her documents, nothing, which is a common thing we find in the work we do. We often have to do referrals so that people can get with the proper agencies that will help them get their documents — identification, Social Security cards, things of that nature." Out of jail as she awaited her own trial, she was able to steady herself. Later, Henton helped talk her through a confusing miscommunication from her probation office, averting potential disaster.
She's in college now, Henton says. She's doing much better now. "It was a success. My heart was really into it."
* * *
The Bail Project takes that idea — freeing those people in jail who, in theory, are innocent until proven guilty — and adds a sense of legitimacy to it. Not that there's anything particularly illegitimate about more clandestine bail-out work, but sometimes it's helpful to have a nonprofit at your back.
Robin Steinberg thought this when she and her husband, David, started kicking around the idea of building a bail fund for their clients in the Bronx in New York City. As public defenders, they'd seen how pretrial detention can tear a person away from their day-to-day existence just long enough to cave in the foundation. Kids sent to welfare programs. Immigration status questioned. Jobs lost.
Around 2005, she began soliciting philanthropic funds, and, after about two years of seeking some help, she found a supporter in Jason Flom, a music industry executive who's cultivated an interest in wrongful convictions and the strange intricacies of the American criminal justice system. The idea was to put Flom's money to work in a revolving bail fund — get one person out of jail, see them through the duration of their criminal court docket, then get the money back and help someone else. Do it again. Keep doing it until the system learned and adapted.
Without knowing how the Bronx Freedom Fund would go, Steinberg says they worked quietly at first. "Very quietly," she says. "I would say, actually, completely hidden from view." The positive results came swiftly, though, and soon the Bronx fund began to pick up a reputation.
For the next 10 years, everything that Steinberg learned shattered her preconceptions about the criminal justice system. Half the cases that the fund touched were dismissed, and very few of the remaining defendants got jail sentences. In fact, as defendants were freed, 96 percent of them continued to show up to court, and then prosecutors and judges grew more willing to engage in community-based solutions. The system began to respond.
The Bronx Freedom Fund also generated data: pure statistics that Steinberg could show local jurisdictions elsewhere to prove that this idea had legs. Bail reform was having a powerful effect.
In April 2018, Steinberg revealed her audacious goals in a TED Talk titled, "What if we ended the injustice of bail?" In her presentation, she leads with a prison parable, a vision of prison visits early in her career — grimy floors, maddening din and total isolation from society. The experience stayed with her, and she's worked to communicate that to others; not everyone has the chance to walk through an active detention center and see what it's like, after all. Online, the TED Talk video has been watched more than 2 million times, and the Bail Project has been buoyed by collective donations that turned into the organization's thousands of bail-outs. Now, the momentum is rolling.
Steinberg, founder and CEO of the Bail Project, visited Cleveland in November 2019, stopping in to check on the disruptors' progress and assess particular needs, pressure points, successes. When the Bail Project launches in a new community, the organization is looking for potential partnerships and a general willingness on the ground to engage in solutions. Where is the bail reform movement in this particular city? Who are the power brokers who may be able (and willing) to open the door to new policies?
"But what we're really trying to do in every local jurisdiction is obviously respond to the immediate human crisis, right?" she says. "That is: People are sitting in jail cells, their lives are falling apart, they're being harmed, their families are being harmed, their communities are being harmed, over people who have not been convicted of a crime."
The other thing the Bail Project has set out to do is work with local policy makers and elected officials to parse the empirical data and figure out what's working (pretrial wrap-around services, for instance) and what's not (criminalizing poverty, for example). What might a different process look like?
"The Bail Project's promise is really — what we want to do is ensure — that nobody in America is incarcerated before they've been convicted of a crime," Steinberg says. "What are some alternatives to the dumb blunt instrument of jail?"
* * *
Mike Sutherland was sitting in the Cuyahoga County Jail when he heard about the Bail Project. It sounded like a joke, like somebody was pulling his leg.
"There was another inmate who was mentioning it, and I really didn't believe it," Sutherland says, recalling the cacophony of the jail, the shouted words, uncertain lingo. The Bail Project?
He'd been charged with receiving stolen property back in November. The way Sutherland describes it, he bought a car from a young lady. He threw a 30-day tag on the car and fixed it up. Out in the neighborhood, he says, she must have seen him driving by — and she called the police to report the vehicle as stolen. The miscommunications that funnel into the criminal justice system come hard and fast.
Suddenly, he was arrested and sent down to the jail to stew while he awaited his time before a judge. "It was my property," he insists. "I was trying to get out to prove that. I wanted to get out so I could really do some investigation on — what should I do?"
Bail set at $2,500.
Case management hearing in one week.
Sutherland was walking around on crutches, thanks to a motorcycle accident a year prior. His right foot was in a boot to help him walk, and he says that the corrections officers took that from him. He craved his pain medication. Then he heard about somebody who might come around and pay his bail.
"When that guy said that, I wrote the number down — he hollered it out, talking to somebody else — and I called them and, lo and behold, it was like magic," he says. Body picked up the phone and visited Sutherland on his next stop to the county jail. "He told me what he was about and what he was going to do for me and told me not to worry — that he got it covered."
By the time he learned about the Bail Project and jotted down Body's number, he'd been in the jail for five days.
On the sixth day, Body showed up and got him out.
"He was right on time," Sutherland says. "And it was like magic. I couldn't believe that he really, really was out here, paying people's bonds."
Ultimately, Sutherland's bail was dropped to $1,500.
When all of that was done, 17 days after his arrest in Mount Pleasant, Sutherland's charges were dismissed. Presumed guilty until proven innocent.
"What they're doing is really helping, because in our community — and I'm going to tell you the truth," he says. "In our community, sometimes we get overcharged with things, so the bond is higher than it needs to be. That's something else that we can work on, getting those bonds reduced, so we can be working on our case. That's the thing that we really need to do, is get out so we can be able to do our own footwork."
* * *
Where Body and Henton have made inroads, they point out that the local conversation has predated the Bail Project's work. They make it more clear and obvious, yes, but Cuyahoga County stakeholders have been particularly vocal in their intention to do something about the problem with cash bail.
In 2018, the Cuyahoga County Bail Task Force published a report that recommended sweeping changes to business as usual. "All Cuyahoga County courts should transition from a bail system based on bond schedules, which vary widely from one court to the next, to a centralized, consistent, and comprehensive system of pretrial services initiated immediately after arrest," according to the report.
That hasn't quite happened yet.
In a December 2019 report by former Cuyahoga County administrative judge John Russo, the best bet remains hope. "I am pleased discussions have resumed with the county executive, and I am hopeful some form of centralized booking will happen for Cuyahoga County in the future," he wrote.
On Dec. 12, 2019, the League of Women Voters Greater Cleveland teamed up with 90.3 WCPN Ideastream, Cleveland Heights-University Heights Public Library and Siegal Lifelong Learning Program CWRU to present an overview of where we are now with these efforts. Russo was on the panel. No doubt, this event was another signal that bail reform is a broad community issue, all hands on deck.
"No matter the genesis, sowing the seeds of change is a challenge," Russo wrote, "but the harvest can be plentiful."
For Cleveland Municipal Court's role in all of this, Body and Henton say they haven't made any progress into those courtrooms. But the municipal court started its pretrial services department later in 2018, following the task force report. The court closed the Warrensville Heights workhouse jail it was stacking with humans and consolidated its operations downtown at the county jail. Municipal judge Charles Patton Jr. told the crowd at the League of Women Voters event that he used to see between 200 and 300 men and women in that jail, so overcrowded that folks would be sleeping on the floor. Now, as of mid-December, the municipal court claimed around 90 people in jail. "During this year, we have reduced our jail population by more than 50 percent by utilizing the pretrial services, the adjustments to setting bail numbers and getting more people out in the street," Patton said.
However it's implemented, the work of bail reform (and "criminal justice reform," more broadly) is a slow, incremental business touched by a sprawling spectrum of people on the ground in a particular jurisdiction. "It's not going to happen overnight," Body says, "but Kareem and I both have a journal where we just take notes and take notice of everything that we see or that we don't see that should be happening."
They watch the daily business of the Justice Center from the angle of the judge, the angle of a bail advocate, the angle of a client, the angles of family members, the angles of folks who have actually been in the system before, the angles of victims' advocates, public defenders and so on. In some ways the work of bail disruptors is like describing the third season of Serial, where the team behind This American Life provided a rare fish-eye lens on the whole of the local criminal justice ecosystem. It takes that focused observation to really convey what justice looks like to the voting, taxpaying public. "Being able to see it from these different angles, we're able to observe and see all the nuances that come about and hopefully help come up with solutions to these nuances," Body says. "We can make it a well-oiled machine, where the process can be smoother and streamlined."
And without that voting, taxpaying public having a grip on all of this, it's hard to overturn the elected officials who've sat on this problem for so long. With each passing year, the American electorate coughs up another $14 billion to keep it going.
"It's a lack of proximity to a lot of our elected officials, in a sense," Body says. "They're so strictly by-the-book, gung-ho to follow these laws and procedures, but not taking into consideration the culture and the environment that they're currently operating in. We also have these elected officials that say, 'We're for the people! We understand what's going on!' But they're the elected officials who are setting these outrageous bonds. They're constantly being reelected."
At some point, something's gotta give. Body and Henton are banking on the simple idea of a revolving bail fund, the simple idea that grew out of a conversation in the Bronx and took hold in courts across the U.S.
In January, the Bronx Freedom Fund stopped posting bail in New York City. It was a moment of victory, more than a decade on from the dream that Steinberg and her husband first talked about in hushed whispers. New York's state legislature had approved a bill that would bar local judges from setting bail in misdemeanor and nonviolent felony cases. Pretrial services are taking precedence in New York county courts now, and the very work that Steinberg's organization had been doing was suddenly obsolete. It was time to move on. Places like Cleveland need their attention now. Detroit. Tulsa. Phoenix. The great American frontier of cash bail oppression.
And who knows what might happen next with Body and Henton working in the Justice Center each day?
"We mean it when we say we want to put ourselves out of business," Steinberg says. "Nothing will make me happier."