Dec 27, 2022
Note: In light of the growing body of news and evidence that the King County Jail is dangerous and ineffective at improving safety, the Hacks & Wonks team decided to re-air this illuminating episode about the harm that jail and the current bail system causes our community.
On this Hacks & Wonks midweek show, Chanel Rhymes, Director of Advocacy at the Northwest Community Bail Fund, joins Crystal Fincher to discuss our desperate need for bail reform. The NCBF is dedicated to ending cash bail and pretrial detention in Washington state. They do advocacy for reform, court watching to hold the system accountable, and they raise funds to provide bail for people who can’t afford it on their own.
Chanel explains the difficulties that jailing people prior to a conviction causes for people before they’re even convicted of a crime, and dispels criticisms of bail funds as being dangerous for the community, rather than being a correction against systemic inequality. Crystal and Chanel also breakdown recent data on bail reform that shows that bail reform and eliminating pretrial detention for misdemeanors actually reduces crime in the long run, and doesn’t negatively impact whether people show up to court.
You can find information on the Northwest Community Bail Fund and resources for its court watching program in the links below.
Chanel Rhymes is the Director of Advocacy for the Northwest Community Bail Fund. Prior to joining the Northwest Community Bail fund, Chanel served as the Court Program Analyst for the Washington Supreme Court Minority and Justice Commission, executing the mission of ensuring that all courts in the state of Washington remain free of bias so that justice might be adjudicated in a neutral and fair manner. Previously, she was a Program Manager for the Freedom Education Project of Puget Sound where she developed and coordinated college courses for women seeking to attain their AA degrees while incarcerated at the Washington Correction Center for Women.
Chanel has worked with the Council of State Governments Justice Center, supporting their work on national criminal justice reform. She also has legislative experience as a Political Field Organizer and as a Legislative Liaison for the Washington Student Association, where she lobbied for the interests of students in higher education around issues of affordability, administration transparency, and accessibility. Chnel was raised in Tacoma, Washington, and received her BA from Evergreen State College with a focus in Law and Government Policy.
As always, a full text transcript of the show is available below and at officialhacksandwonks.com.
“The Effects of Misdemeanor Bail Reform” from Quattrone Center for the Fair Administration of Justice
“No More Police: A Case for Abolition” by Mariame Kaba & Andrea J. Ritchie
Washington state court’s Criminal Rule 3.2
“A Seattle man began the night in crisis. Then, a sudden death in restraint” by Sydney Brownstone and Greg Kim from The Seattle Times
“In a Sign of Worsening Conditions, Understaffed King County Jail Has Lacked Water for a Week” by Erica C. Barnett from PubliCola
“Public Defenders Union Joins Jail Guards’ Call to Address COVID Crisis” by Paul Kiefer from PubliCola
[00:00:00] Crystal Fincher: Welcome to Hacks & Wonks. I'm Crystal Fincher and I'm a political consultant and your host. On the show, we talk with policy wonks and political hacks to gather insight into local politics and policy in Washington state through the lens of those doing the work with behind-the-scenes perspectives on what's happening, why it's happening, and what you can do about. Full transcripts and resources referenced in the show are always available at officialhacksandwonks.com and in our episode notes. Thank you so much for joining us today. I'm very excited about this show, where we get to talk with Chanel Rhymes, who is the director of advocacy at Northwest Community Bail Fund. Thank you so much for joining us.
[00:00:51] Chanel Rhymes: Thank you for having me. I'm really excited to be here.
[00:00:54] Crystal Fincher: Excited to have you on. Have been a follower of the organization for quite some time. Obviously, this has been a topic across the country, and really globally. We're behind a lot of the globe on this. But in our country, a topic especially in the past few years, and looking at just what we're doing in terms of our criminal legal system, all of the challenges within it, and what can be done to make our communities more safe, keep our communities more safe, and really move towards a world and communities where we meet basic needs and we don't choose punishment over healing injustice. So I guess starting out, can you tell me just what the Northwest Community Bail Fund is and does, and what brought you to this work?
[00:01:46] Chanel Rhymes: The Northwest Community Bail Fund is a nonprofit organization. We post bail for those during pre-trial detention. A lot of folks cannot afford to access the services of a bail bond agency, whether they don't have the means or collateral, so we are here to fill in those gaps. Ultimately we would hope to see an end to pre-trial detention and cash bail, but, because we know that is gonna take time, in the meantime we work to reduce harm. So we post bail as well as just, make sure that the community is not harmed and folks can fight their cases from a position of freedom, which they're entitled to through the constitution and the Washington state constitution.
[00:02:33] Crystal Fincher: Absolutely.
[00:02:34] Chanel Rhymes: I myself came to this work in- I've been doing criminal justice reform work for a long- or, excuse me, criminal punishment reform work, for a long time. I, myself, am formally incarcerated. I am very passionate about those that have done their time and served their time be- the opportunity to go back into society and be a contributing member. I personally believe, though, that we need to stop trying to fix things after and start things from the beginning. Kind of like the, the babies in the river. I'm not gonna keep taking the babies out. I'd rather let's not put the babies in. So I'm trying to, we, myself and our organization, is trying to work to so that folks are just not incarcerated. And a lot of times folks are incarcerated just because of not having means.
[00:03:25] Crystal Fincher: And this is such an important conversation. One, just as we talk about right now, we're sitting here in the midst of a crisis as defined by our public defenders, staff at jails. We had a historic letter earlier this year where both public defenders and corrections officers
are saying, "hey, we can't handle the population here at the King County jail. It's unsafe. It's beyond what we can tolerate." And I don't think a lot of people realize that a lot of people who are in jail have not been convicted of anything. This is a pre-trial detention. They've not been sentenced. They're not serving a crime. They've not been found guilty of anything. It is simply because of a financial reason that they are sitting in jail and all of the challenges that, that presents. What does it mean and what kind of challenges does it pose when we detain people before their trials?
[00:04:25] Chanel Rhymes: Oh, plethora. You could risk losing your housing. You can lose your children, custody of your children. You can lose your employment. And with all that comes, a rippling effect of other things, whether that be financial instability, just the trauma itself of going to jail. A lot of people that, say "lock them up," or "they just need to go to jail," never seen the inside of a jail. It's one of the most horrific places. On top of, with us being in a pandemic, you could potentially die, ultimately, from sitting in jail because there are still COVID outbreaks in jails every week. And so ultimately you could lose your life for something you haven't even been convicted of yet. And that's no way to bake it. That's not the way our system is designed. It's not supposed to be set up that way. Or at least they say that.
[00:05:24] Crystal Fincher: At least they say that. It is certainly not what we've been sold. And so it's such a challenge. It is very destabilizing. And even in the case that someone does wind up pleading guilty or serving time, we're relying on them having the means to pay whatever fines they're going to be charged to do all that. And so if they don't have a job, if they have lost, as a result of being detained, all of the ability to fulfill the terms of whatever punishment they've been handed, that's a challenge in and of itself. And the bottom line is, a lot of people think putting people in jail makes us safer. If we didn't have this, they would be out committing crimes. And every now and then there's a case that gets publicized where they say, see, look, this is- bail reform caused this. Is that the case?
[00:06:24] Chanel Rhymes: It's not the case. Number one, judges decide what bail is. Number two folks have a constitutional right to bail. The purpose of bail - and our Washington Supreme Court has said this - the state is not in the primary interest of collecting bail bond forfeitures. It is more concerned with folks showing up to court. That is what the purpose is. That, whether somebody is released or not, does not make us safer. There are tons of people who are arrested for violent crimes and don't spend a day in jail because they have the means to bail themselves out. Where are the folks asking about them? I think it's very interesting that bail reform and, nonprofits, people who don't make money off of this business, are the ones under the microscope, but yet bail bond agencies make millions of dollars every day bailing people out that sometimes do go on to commit new crimes. We don't hear about those in the news. We only hear about the less fortunate, which is those folks that are coming to a community bail fund or, mutual aid fund, and it's because we demonize poverty in this society. And it's just bizarre to me, in a sense, that we've gotten to this point. As if folks don't understand that wages have been stagnant for 40 years. The cost of living is going up. People can't make it can't survive. And so putting them in jail, and then if they are convicted or plead guilty just to get out, they now have a criminal conviction. So then that creates barriers to getting employment. And the other thing that you need, housing, that is the first, one of the major things that disqualifies most folks for housing, is a criminal conviction. So if we're also criminalizing homelessness, locking people up, then convicting them, and then they get out and they can't rent anywhere, and then we're like, "why are you homeless?" We are just creating this cycle and it's really a cycle of abuse.
[00:08:38] Crystal Fincher: Yeah, and one really has to ask is the offense that people really are in jail for whatever they've been accused of, or is it just that they're poor and can't afford bail? And even just the issue of bail overall, for some reason, we have landed in a place where we think that a dollar amount is indicative of whether or not someone is in danger or is safe regardless of what they have been accused of, regardless of what kind of flight risk someone may be deemed to be. Hey, if you have enough money to, if you're rich, and and you can pay for whatever, it really doesn't matter. You're not gonna be in jail. And, we have seen several examples of people who are, just a small misdemeanor accusation which, often can result in dropped charges overall for lack of evidence, for just not being worth it to pursue in the system, yet they have been in jail and have experienced, like you talked about, the loss of job, the loss of housing, and that being destabilizing. And in fact that increasing the chance that someone is likely to be involved in their criminal legal system in the future, as opposed to if they were able to maintain their connections in community. And then also on the back end, just about everyone we're sending into jail is going to come out on the other end. So don't we have an interest in making sure that we are doing all we can to set people up for success and to not drop them into another pit, which it seems this just sets up people to do. What do you tell people when they're like, "it's there to make sure they come back and if they don't have bail, then they won't come back. So bail is necessary and if they can't afford it, then you know, they could just leave and never come back anyway?" what do you tell people who just say bail is necessary to get people to show up?
[00:10:48] Chanel Rhymes: They can find us anywhere. The world we live in now, if they wanna find you, they really can find you. But, ultimately, most people do wanna get this resolved. Nobody wants this hanging over their head. A lot of times people don't show up, not on purpose. People, don't FTA, or Failure to Appear, on purpose. Life happens. There's life circumstance. Also, too, people wanna get it taken care of because they probably didn't do it. People aren't really decking and dodging. I will add though that even if we have a lot of folks saying people they need to go to jail or they need to do this, a misdemeanor? It's max fine, like 90 days in jail. So I think too, people have a misconception of what our punishments, our sentencing structure is, and the difference between jail and the difference between prison, and misdemeanors, gross misdemeanors, and felonies. Even with our gross misdemeanor, the max jail time is a year, up to a year, but after that, okay, they serve their time, they're back out, what are we going to do to help folks? What I tell people is how is this solving anything? Why would you want your tax dollars just to be wasted to keep doing this? And wouldn't you want your tax dollars to be used to help people. So they're not back in this situation? The amount of money that we spend on criminal punishment and police is just ridiculous when you compare it to what we spend on education. So if we really wanted to make changes, we would be investing our money in education, healthcare, mental healthcare, reproductive rights, all of those things. Never in our 40 years of plus doing this whole drug war or anything, have cops, police, arrest helped make us any safer or do any type of harm reduction. There's tons of studies out there that show when you reinvest that many within the community and provide people's services, recidivism goes down. I think it's odd that we just keep having to have this conversation over and over again, because we obviously know what's not working, but we are very, afraid to try what some people or some municipalities and governments have done that work.
[00:13:11] Crystal: Well. And it feels like, for people who've looked into this, for the people who are the loudest on this issue on either side, they do know what the data says. They do know that the evidence shows conclusively, repeatedly - there was just a new study that came out and reiterated this just last month - that bail reform, not relying on bail and releasing people pre-trial, not subjecting them to all of the harms that result from that, doesn't hurt people appearing in court over people who have been detained, doesn't hurt their likelihood of committing a crime again, over people who have been in bail. So there is actually no advantage safety-wise. There's no advantage in the court system. It's not, "hey, a lot of people were failing to appear - weren't failing to appear - now they are with bail reform. It is actually the opposite. This is working to keep people safer. This is working to help people show up and we are not contending with how expensive this is to us as a society financially and in terms of just our safety and our health within the community. My goodness, courts are expensive to run and administer. Prisons and jails are so expensive to run and administer. All of the staff, all of everything required to do that is so costly. We're sitting here talking about upcoming budget shortfalls here in, the city of Seattle, throughout the state in different cities, yet when you look at the city's budget, such a huge percentage of it and their county's budget, such a huge percentage is dedicated to locking people up. And especially pre-trial, what benefit are we getting out of it? Why do you think people are so resistant to saying, "wow. Number one, we aren't getting the results that we want from our current system. It would actually save us money that we could invest in areas that we all know need it." Yet, lots of people still aren't there. Why do you think that is?
[00:15:22] Chanel Rhymes: Because people are being misinformed, and fear-mongered by their local news and reporters, who I'm shocked at the things that they write and put out. And it's clear that a lot of reporters locally here have no clue about criminal law or criminal procedure. They are flat out lying to the public. And so then folks see that on TV, they read it in their newspapers, they read it online and they think that the sky is falling. Everything is super dangerous. I also think poverty is a lot more visible now. So people, their senses seem to think "oh, it's bad, it's more." And it's no, just more people are hurting and you're seeing it more. It's not hidden. It's coming into your neighborhoods. I truly believe it's miseducation, misinformation, and 30 years of watching Law and Order that people think they know the system and how things work. I blame our media to be quite honest, because they're just not being truthful. And most of the information that, it seems to me, that they're getting are coming either straight from prosecutors or straight from police. They are refusing to talk to anybody from the other side.
[00:16:42] Crystal Fincher: And even, not from either, quote unquote side, there are actual experts on crime. They're called criminologists. We have lots of them at our wonderful universities, research universities here in the area, who are able to speak on what the evidence and research shows is and is not effective and useful and working in terms of keeping people safe, keeping people from committing crimes. And over again, they are coming up with data that says detaining people pre-trial just because they cannot afford to get out of jail does not keep us safer. Does not do anything to help our system to help reduce crime. It just doesn't do that. In fact if it had, if it has, any effect, it's the opposite effect. It actually makes outcomes worse. It makes people more likely to do that because they have been made more unstable and put in a more precarious position because of that. So if you were to talk to a lot of the local media, what would you advise that they do?
[00:17:53] Chanel Rhymes: Educate themselves on the way that criminal law, that criminal procedure, works before just going with conjecture and their feelings and how they feel. There are laws, there are court rules, reasons why things are done. Ultimately too, the fact that they're saying, "okay, so we're holding people because they can't afford it." If they were so dangerous, no bail would be set. Obviously, a bail has been set, so that judge has deemed them safe enough to go back into the community once they pay that money. So you can't have it both ways either, it's completely they're there because they're a danger or is it really they're there because they can't afford it? Because if they were such a danger, then why is there a dollar amount that they could pay that says they're not dangerous? It just doesn't make any sense. I mean the argument of it makes us safer- it just doesn't. And I just think we've just been recycling the same thing over and over again. And then also, too, people, the internet, your phone, every social media, people are getting lots of just different images and things like things are horrible. "Seattle is dying, oh my gosh, they've closed my Starbucks." And it's really like people are homeless and hungry and that's, what's really- The fact that too, we are still within a pandemic and we have a lot of people in charge that want folks to just keep on going just out. "No, everything's fine." people are still financially hurting. We also hear a lot about, I'll just say that, media's writing a lot about retail. Nobody writes about wage theft. More money is stolen in wages than it is in deodorant. What does that tell you? I'm reading a police report and somebody is charged with stealing body wash, deodorant, razors. They're trying to survive. Those are essential items. Like we need to look at that. Like what services can we get that person so they don't have to steal the basic needs just to be a human and live in this society?
[00:20:12] Crystal Fincher: I'm with you, I'm with you. So as we look moving forward, right now, you and Northwest Community Bail Fund are filling in this gap in our current system. Obviously there's a lot of changes that would be more effective if we made them. In terms of bail, what is it that you would like to see changed about our current system? Would you like to move to a system where judges just make the decision as they have in some other localities across the country? "Hey we're not really doing bail. We are making the determination about whether we feel this person is a flight risk or a threat to society. And if yes, we're detaining them and if, no, we're not." And throwing the idea of bail out the window in lieu of that? Or something different? What would you like to see in terms of bail in the system we're in?
[00:21:10] Chanel Rhymes: There should be no bail. There should be no pre-trial detention. Folks are innocent until proven guilty. There's no reason for anybody to be caged. That's what they are, is caged. Before they have been convicted by a judge or jury of their peers. They've just been accused. We should be moving completely away from that. I would say, even just to start, we could have judges actually, follow court rule 3.2, which says you need to use the least restrictive means to release people. So that would be a start. We do court watching in courts around the area, particularly Seattle Municipal Court. We watch arraignment hearings. We, we take, track, demographic data, race, perceived age, age, date of birth. But we also track if court rule 3.2 is brought up by judges, by the prosecutor, or by the defense. And we recently had our data analyzed and it was only 13% in all of the cases that we had listened to that it was brought up. That's a very low number for a court rule to not even be mentioned during arraignment. And that has to do with whether folks are, public safety issue or, the means to pay to get out. So I think one, first thing is if y'all going, institute these rules and create these policies, you should follow them first. You're not even following your own policies, so can you accurately say if it's working or not? I don't think so, but ultimately it's a no. I'm an abolitionist. Get rid of them all. I just got my no more police book. I just started on that. This, it's not working. All we're doing is harming people and it's not sustainable and it costs too much. We could be investing those dollars in so many other ways that would actually give us a better return on investment because all we're doing is churning out more debt, ultimately, because if they can't get a job, they can't get housed, we're still gonna end up having to pay for it another way.
[00:23:27] Crystal Fincher: Yeah. We're paying for it no matter what, just depends on whether it's an investment that's gonna yield a return later on. If we're dealing in, education and health and mental health and behavioral health support and treatment that do yield benefits for our entire community or whether we are dealing in the aftermath of pain and harm and paying to keep people in prison and incarcerated, which is just so terribly expensive and costly financially, and to our community, to that person, to the community, to everyone involved. What would you say to the people who- Obviously we always hear examples of violent crimes, horrible crimes, some horrible crimes happen that should never happen. And they see what someone has been accused of. They hear evidence against them and they're like, "that person is not safe on the street." And say, "we're afraid of what can happen. That they're a danger to society and based on what they've done, they should be detained." What do you say to people in that circumstance?
[00:24:50] Chanel Rhymes: You have no proof that evidence is actually evidence that is true, or that can convict him. People are innocent until proven guilty in a court of law, not public opinion. There's a process that you go through during criminal procedure where the judge gets to decide what evidence gets to come in and what doesn't. We don't just get to decide oh, that's true. That piece of evidence that the reporters said right there is true. Also, we all know police lie all the time. We're just gonna take the word of police because that's who most reporters are getting their information from, they're just reading it from police reports and statements or their, communications officer or whoever it may be. So how is it that untrained people in law, just the regular general public would be able to determine who's safe and who's not? I also think if a judge has set bail, who are you to say that, better than that judge about the case? I don't understand that. Either we believe in these systems and y'all want these systems to do their job, or y'all just want to do it out in the public. Are we going back to that? Where we just doing the public, in the public square, and then everybody we decide how things go? No. To me, it's just bizarre that somebody be like this is what happened. You really don't know that's just what it was reported. People have to be convicted in a court, not in public opinion, it's just not the way it works.
[00:26:24] Crystal Fincher: Which is true. And once again, this most recent study in Houston, which backs up prior studies, under consent decree where more people had to be released within 24 hours of a misdemeanor arrest, there was a 6% decrease in new prosecutions over the three years that followed that they followed those defendants. They said, "okay, everybody's saying we need to see whether or not people, are really gonna show up. We need to see whether you letting people out is really going to, make things safer as these people claim, let's follow these defendants. Let's follow these people." Over a period of years, not even beyond, not even stopping at, okay this one case, their current case was adjudicated, whatever happened, they went beyond. Eliminating bail, taking that out as a factor, releasing them and not detaining them simply because they can't afford bail, resulted in a decrease over the existing system. Meaning that locking people up made it more likely that someone was going to commit a crime again. Made it more likely that things would be less safe in our community. I'm for what makes people more. We talk about all of these things. A lot of it is punishment related. And I think in so many of these conversations, we have to decide whether we are going to prioritize punishing people or whether we're gonna prioritize keeping our community safe, because they really are at odds. And punishment is not working for us, any of us, and it's really expensive. It is so harmful to the person involved, it's harmful to the community and it's so costly. And we talk about funding for jails. We talk about funding for police. There is only a certain amount of money in the whole bucket. So if we're giving more to one area, we're taking it from somewhere else or preventing it from being invested in somewhere else. And I'm sure everyone listening to this thinks, "hey, we need, we do need more behavioral health support. We do need more substance use disorder. Treatment and accessibility and availability. We do need to make sure people have access to these things without having to be involved in the criminal legal system to get clean or to get healthy." And so it's just such an important issue and I thank you for just being vocal about this. For helping people in this organization and doing something that is making our community safer. Really appreciate it. If people want to learn more or to get involved or donate to the Northwest Community Bail Fund, how can they do that?
[00:29:11] Chanel Rhymes: You can go to our website, which is N-W- C-O-M-B-A-I-L-F-U-N-D.org So nwcombailfund.org. You can follow us on Twitter and Instagram. I'm so grateful to have this conversation with you and inviting me on to talk about the organization that I dearly love, and we truly do wanna make our community safer and we wanna stop harming folks.
[00:29:42] Crystal Fincher: Yeah, absolutely. Wanna stop harming folks. One thing that I do have to mention: I saw a report that you produced, and I feel like this was last year at some time now. You're not only doing this work, but you are, as an organization, being accountable, being transparent about the activity that's going on. You are showing results for what you're doing in a way that goes be above and beyond a number of others that I've seen. I appreciate that transparency in this organization. And then also wanted to mention, you brought up your court watching, also, earlier, which is such a useful and valuable tool. And just enlightening and informative because, to your point, lots of people don't know what happens in court. People have very limited experience, maybe someone contests a parking ticket or a speeding ticket or something. Lots of people have never stepped foot in one. And so have this idea from TV shows what it's like. It's nothing like what on TV shows. And so I sincerely appreciate that too. We're gonna link those court watching resources in the show notes, also for people to be able to access and follow.
[00:31:05] Chanel Rhymes: Thank you. That is also available on our website, we're always looking for more court Watchers. We really need folks to go in person to courts. Seattle Municipal Court and Tacoma Municipal Court offer virtual courts so people can actually court watch from the comfort of their own home. If you're interested in court watching with us, please go to our website and fill out an interest form.
[00:31:25] Crystal Fincher: Thank you so much for all of your information today, for what you do. It's been a pleasure to have you on Chanel.
[00:31:31] Chanel Rhymes: Thank you.
[00:31:32] Crystal Fincher: Thank you all for listening to Hacks and Wonks. The Producer of Hacks & Wonks is Lisl Stadler, our Assistant Producer is Shannon Cheng, and our Post-Production Assistant is Bryce Cannatelli. You can find Hacks & Wonks on Twitter at @HacksWonks, and you can follow me at @finchfrii spelled F I N C H F R I I. You can catch Hacks & Wonks on iTunes, Spotify, or wherever else you get your podcasts. Just type Hacks & Wonks into the search bar. Be sure to subscribe, to get our Friday almost-live shows and our midweek show delivered right to your podcast feed. If you like us, leave us a review wherever you listen. You can also get a full transcript of this episode and links to the resources referenced in the show at officialhacksandwonks.com and in the episode notes.
Thanks for tuning in. Talk to you next time.