By Rev. Brandon Duran and Rev. Thomas J. FitzGerald,
on behalf of Faith Action for Community Equity
When did this imbalance become normal? Did television crime dramas lull us into believing this procedure was fair and right? Was the money to be made enough to skip over the deeper reflection on how the poor are penalized? When did we decide that this was OK?
Cash bail is new. Very new. Over the past 45 years the total jail population has risen in Hawai’i by almost 800% according to the Vera Institute of Justice, and pre-trial detainees now make up more than half of the total population of Hawai‘i’s jails. As ministers we are connected to faith traditions that span thousands of years. A significant part of our work is reflecting on what changes and what stays the same over time in the communities we serve and in the wider world. Both of our faith traditions call us to take special notice of trends that harm the vulnerable among us. One of those very new trends is the overuse of a cash bail system.
“The poor will always be with you….” Jesus of Nazareth shared this wisdom in the Gospel of Matthew. Its meaning is regularly discussed from pulpits, in articles, and as the basis for large-scale social movements founded by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, like the Poor People’s Campaign.
For centuries before and after this statement, the most vulnerable in any group can be the most powerful teacher to those who will listen. The voice of the vulnerable names how the powerful apply their strength. As a society are we using our strength to uphold the rights of the vulnerable and to strengthen the hand of the poor or are we adding to their burden? The depth and authenticity of our aloha will be revealed by the way we treat the poor and the most vulnerable. The use of cash bail in Hawai‘i is a tremendous failure of that test.
When a person is arrested in Hawai‘i, a judge sets a cash bail amount that person has to pay. The idea is to ensure that person shows up to court. If that person has money, they get to go home. They are allowed to continue to work, pay bills, and be present with their families. If that person does not have money, they go to jail. They are punished because they don’t have money. Only the poor are punished.
When that person is in jail, they can’t work and often lose their job. When that person’s income is important to maintaining their residence, then their whole family commonly loses their home. The poor person’s family is punished.
When a person is released from detention before trial (when they are allowed to buy their freedom from the state), they are much less likely to be convicted of the crime of which they are accused. Those who remain in jail are convicted much more often. So again, the poor are being punished.
Let us all remember that all of this punishment happens before someone is even proven guilty. All the person lacks to avoid these penalties is the cash to be free.
The changes to the cash (some use the word “caste”) bail system being proposed in HB 1567 would allow low-level, nonviolent offenders to remain employed and in their homes. Our faiths urge us to call upon lawmakers to act and pass these reforms. Our hope urges us to call upon all of us to let our legislators know that our values in Hawai’i demand these changes. Perhaps most importantly, our logic shows us that this system is painfully, woefully, and very recently broken.
When did this treatment of the poor become normal? The answer of time and of wisdom tells us it is not normal, and it never should be. We might not be able to pinpoint the exact moment this injustice started, but we know that we can end it now.