The King had spent over a month awaiting trial in Cook County Jail when he heard about a phone number that could free him.
“It was a cool friend that I met in there, when I was incarcerated. He was like, ‘Hey, King, you don’t need to be in here,’” recounts Devoureaux Wolf, also known as King Detro, the Footwork King. “He uplifted me, telling me, ‘Look, I heard about this number, I think you should use it.’”
That’s how Wolf first learned about the Chicago Community Bond Fund.
“I said, ‘Dude, are you serious? [They’ll pay my] bond? You’re telling me it’s this easy?’”
Things that spring hadn’t been easy for the King, who got his name performing the Chicago dance style called footwork. He was arrested in March and charged with aggravated battery against a police officer, a felony. Then his uncle, who had been ill, died while Wolf was in jail; money that could have been used to pay his $3,000 bond instead went to his uncle’s care. And he was about to miss his mother’s graduation from her master’s program, something they had both been looking forward to.
Meanwhile, he was developing ailments of his own: kidney problems, from being dehydrated in jail. CCBF sounded too good to be true, but he was too desperate to ignore the tip. Within days, the nonprofit organization had interviewed him and posted his bond, and he was free—just in time to bury his uncle and see his mom graduate.
The bond fund, one of several in the country, is rooted in a bedrock idea of the American justice system: people are innocent until proven guilty. And since they believe that innocent people should not be in jail, they raise money to pay cash bonds for those who cannot pay for themselves. The one-year-old group has raised over a quarter million dollars and posted 50 bonds. And, since bond is returned once a case has been resolved, it’s a revolving fund—already, nine bonds have been returned to the CCBF’s coffers, ready to bail someone new out.
It all sounds simple enough, but bond fund members have a larger, more difficult goal in mind. They want to end cash bail, period.
It’s a goal that seemed incredibly ambitious when they posted their very first bond, but the past 12 months have made a big difference. As CCBF geared up its outreach campaign, public opinion shifted: a growing mountain of research showed how damaging pretrial jail time can be, and criminal justice reformers across the country gained steam. Now, with the support of public officials including Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart and Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson (not to mention the Footwork King), the movement to end cash bail in Illinois might, in fact, be poised to reach its ultimate goal as early as 2017.
The King would be happy to tell you how he ended up in jail and why he’s fighting his case, but he knows it’s best not to—the trial is still pending. He is eager to show he’s a stand-up guy, though, citing how he helps with after school programs and performs at local schools while promoting a positive message to the kids. “I’m one of the young guys in the neighborhood that’s doing something good,” says Wolf, who lives in the West Side neighborhood of Austin.
That’s the message he wanted to get across to CCBF co-founder Max Suchan when they first met, soon after his mom made the call to get him out of jail. But Suchan insisted, as he does to everyone who seeks their assistance, that it’s not about whether they committed the crime or not.
“There’s a lot of people in jail that have bonds and can’t pay them. They are charged with offenses that, whether they’re true or not, is not a call we make as an organization,” says Suchan, an attorney with the National Lawyers Guild of Chicago. Rather, as CCBF advocates say, they recognize that people are in jail because they don’t have money, not because they are bad people.
Most inmates at Cook County Jail are awaiting trial—about 90 percent, according to a November Cook County Commissioners’ hearing—and most of them have a bail amount set by a judge. Though bail is supposed to incentivize criminal defendants to stay out of trouble and show up to court, there is mounting evidence that it doesn’t work that way. Research shows that higher bail amounts do not increase public safety, and that people who post cash bond are just as likely to return to court and/or get arrested again as people who are released without posting any cash. In Washington, D.C., where the vast majority of people arrested are released without needing to post any bond, almost 90 percent of them return to court without getting arrested for another crime.
At a news conference in November, Dart said that 8,000 people were in Cook County Jail, about 250 of whom could leave if they could scrounge up $1,000, or in some cases, even less than that. For years Dart has been touting bail reform as a way to alleviate overcrowding at the jail, which he heads, where each inmate costs taxpayers $150 a day. But in recent months he has escalated his rhetoric to fully condemn the bail system altogether, rather than just pushing to release people with low-level, non-violent charges. In early December, Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson echoed Dart’s sentiments.
"If you're dangerous, you [should be] in jail," Dart told reporters last month. "If you're not dangerous, you're at home. … The fact that you can't come up with $100 is irrelevant."
It was a welcome message to activists like Suchan and fellow CCBF cofounder Sharlyn Grace. Most of the people bonded out by CCBF, like Wolf, are charged with felonies, and most of the felonies are violent charges, Grace says: “It’s important to differentiate between being charged with a crime and being a threat to society. We’re not interested in creating a deserving and undeserving category, or throwing the vast majority of people under the bus to get a small percentage of people out.”
Grace, a Chicago Appleseed Fund fellow who leads CCBF’s policy team, believes the movement’s best bet is to pass legislation that explicitly tackles the problem. The group supports a proposed bill being developed by The People’s Lobby, another Chicago activist group. The bill would stipulate that only the most demonstrably dangerous people charged with violent offenses would be held in jail before they are convicted, and that nobody would be incarcerated due to their inability to pay. How would judges determine who is dangerous and who is not? CCBF is not taking an official stance, but one option is to follow the lead of D.C.’s successful program, which employs "pretrial officers" to evaluate the risk by researching the defendant's criminal record, outstanding warrants, and probation violations, as well as conducting an interview prior to the bail hearing.
State Rep. Christian Mitchell, a Democrat representing part of Chicago’s South Side, is expected to introduce the bill early next year. And while state government hasn’t been particularly effective at passing any legislation lately, decreasing the jail population has significant bipartisan support—even Governor Bruce Rauner has made it a priority. A recent Sun-Times editorial noted, “At least on matters of criminal justice reform, the governor and Legislature have demonstrated, without much fuss, that they can work together.”
Grace remembers when she and other members of CCBF decided ending money bond would be their ultimate goal. “When we wrote that in the summer of 2015, I don’t think we thought that might happen in 2017 or 2018, even," she says. "And now it seems like it might."
CCBF doesn’t bail just anyone out, though its supporters wish they could. They’re limited by personnel (a 65-person all-volunteer staff) and funds.
The organization lists 11 criteria, and currently is only taking referrals from partner groups. (This spring, when Wolf was in jail, CCBF had a brief period of open intake—resulting in hundreds of requests, especially after their phone number was written on the walls of several cell blocks.) The criteria focus on the potential harm that a person faces if they were to remain in jail: the impact on employment status, education, access to housing and government benefits, child custody, immigration status, and more. They also factor in the physical risk that a person faces while in jail due to their identity or medical needs, and, in several high-profile campaigns, have raised money to bail out activists arrested during protests.
For Wolf, getting out of jail meant he could start recovering from his kidney issue, attend two important family events, and get back to performing and making a living. It also meant leaving a dangerous place that he called “condemned.”
“It smelled like shit and piss … it was cold and stinking with flies all around. They threw us down there, and put paint over it to make us think the smell was gonna leave,” Wolf says. He often feared for his physical safety: though his YouTube fame got him connected with CCBF, it also made him a target among other inmates, he says.
CCBF’s Facebook page is full of stories of people who were bailed out and able to keep their jobs, finish school, or care for ill family members or children. Their freedom also gives them a better shot at a fair trial: People in jail are much more likely than their free counterparts to plead guilty simply because they want to get out, and just being in jail makes people more likely to get a guilty verdict, studies show.
Activists view bail as one of many interlocking parts of a system that criminalizes poverty and disproportionately harms black and brown communities. As journalist Nick Pinto wrote in a 2015 New York Times Magazine article, “Bail is the grease that keeps the gears of the overburdened [criminal justice] system turning.” CCBF is not the first or the only group to work toward dismantling cash bail, and it partners with many local, like-minded groups working on different types of reform.
But bond reform especially has gained national attention and widespread support at a rapid rate. This year the Department of Justice, under President Obama, issued an amicus brief that declared pretrial detention due to unpaid money bond unconstitutional. Besides the companies that gain financially from it, few people are fighting to keep the bond system the way it is. Opposition in other states often comes from law enforcement agencies, but even those (as evidenced by Dart and Johnson) are changing their minds, at least locally. Just last month, CCBF was invited to present testimony on the subject to the Cook County commissioners, who seem eager to tackle the problem. So, too, does Cook County’s chief judge Timothy Evans, who has implemented a “risk assessment tool” that he says will treat defendants more fairly, though the effectiveness of that tool is still unclear.
The question, at this point, is not whether bond reform will happen, but when.
Grace and Suchan caution that the “how” is important, too. “There’s a risk that we claim a fast victory to get rid of money bail but not address the different questions around pretrial detention,” Grace says. “We need to ensure we’re not getting people out of jail but punishing them in other ways or putting them into other systems that are also unnecessary and harmful, like electronic monitoring or pretrial probation.”
For now, there is plenty for CCBF and its allies to be hopeful about.
Wolf literally clicks his heels as he recounts how he felt when he learned he would be freed. “I was so happy just to step out of that door,” he says. It’s a cold November night, the first chilly day of the season, yet he arrived at Suchan’s office draped in a loud, patterned leather jacket and thick black-framed glasses accented in gold—a uniform typical of hip hop dancers, though not necessarily weather appropriate. He says he’s excited to perform at a CCBF fundraiser later that weekend, and he’s looking around for a private attorney who will take up his case. His next court date is January 13, and felony cases can take between one and four years to resolve. If it weren’t for CCBF, he’d have been in jail the whole time.
Footwork is a uniquely Chicago style, and Wolf isn’t the only dancer who claims the crown. He hopes his dance battle show on YouTube called “The War Zone,” a production of Walacam TV and the Youth Can after school program, can keep local kids “away from the negativity that’s been going on in the area,” he says.
“I’m doing great with that and I’m so happy I got the chance to keep striving for that effort because Max and [the others] saved me out of that hellhole,” he says.
Suchan, who grabs a bite to eat with Wolf once a month and keeps track of his court case in a hefty brown file in his office, assures the younger man that CCBF is happy to have the King on their side. Though Wolf doesn’t consider himself an activist, since he was released from jail, he’s spoken to a group of Northwestern students about his experience as well as participated in a CCBF documentary. The group raised $10,000 at the November fundraiser where he performed.
“I just want to dance and be seen and heard,” he says. “Politics is a big game.”