With the cash bail system set to end next year, a group of bond reformers are teaming up to build a system of support that will prevent people released from jail from being re-arrested.
The initiative spearheaded by Lawndale Christian Legal Center and the Bail Project expands upon Community Release With Support, the Bail Project’s national model which the groups announced in December 2021. That program set up an infrastructure of social services for people on pre-trial release, providing them with addiction treatment, mental health support, medical care and workforce training.
Organizers are adding housing to that mix. They will partner with the Chicago Low-Income Housing Trust Fund to offer safe and stable rental units to low-income people released from Cook County Jail who are awaiting trial. Participants will pay no more than 30 percent of their income on rent, and the Chicago Low-Income Housing Trust Fund partners with landlords to pay the rest.
Housing is the most pressing issue among people charged with a crime, and housing insecurity is tied with high rates of recidivism, said Matthew McFarland, director of Community Release With Support. Meeting people’s needs and addressing the root causes of why they got involved in crime in the first place is critical to keeping people out of jail, organizers said.
“People need things like employment, job training. … But if you don’t have a place to lay down at night and get up in the morning to go to a job interview … all those other services are much tougher,” McFarland said.
The cash bond system will be abolished statewide when the Pretrial Fairness Act takes effect in 2023, which will lead to the release of many people who would previously were unable to afford bail even though they’d been deemed by a judge not to be a risk to the community.
Lawndale Christian Legal Center staff visits the Cook County Jail daily to build relationships with people who are incarcerated as they await trial. Staffers survey detainees on the things they need to get their families into a more stable situation, said Amy Campanelli, the organization’s head of restorative justice and the former Cook County public defender.
“This is a public safety, violence prevention initiative. Stable safe housing is so crucial for clients navigating a case in the criminal system,” Campanelli said. “If you can’t take care of yourself, you’ll most likely miss or forget about your court date, or possibly you’ll re-offend.”
People released from jail who don’t have a stable living situation find it much harder to manage their legal case and deal with other priorities for their families since “it becomes extremely difficult for them to connect with their lawyer, to connect with their case managers and outreach teams,” Campanelli said.
The Community Release With Support program has already offered housing to six people awaiting trial. Landlords of more than 50 properties have applied to opt into the program, organizers said.
Community Release With Support participants can also potentially rent from the 800 landlords already partnered with the Chicago Low-Income Housing Trust Fund, Executive Director Annissa Lambirth-Garrett said.
“We allow people to live anywhere they want so they can get away from places they don’t feel safe so they don’t have to be in the same place they experienced that trauma,” she said. “It is difficult when you’ve gone through the system and you’ve returned back to the same environment you need to escape.”
Housing services offered by Lawndale Christian Legal Center’s other programs for young people have a track record of breaking cycles of violence and incarceration, organizers said.
Fredrick Dennis, who now works with Community Release With Support to ensure people make their court dates, said he was in a cycle of arrest and incarceration until he found a stable home and access to the services he needed to get his life onto a better path.
Dennis, 27, grew up in an unstable household with a mother who struggled with opioid addiction and an abusive stepfather. He was a prodigious boxer and a straight-A student, he said. But his troubled home life resulted in him and his brothers getting involved in “a lot of stealing, a lot of activity we weren’t supposed to do … to try to help my mother with extra income,” he said.
“I always wanted a different type of life. We’d see commercials for things like ‘High School Musical;’ that was the type of life we wanted, but we just couldn’t get it. Just didn’t grow up that way,” Dennis said.
Dennis “tried to stay away” from getting involved in neighborhood gangs. But he felt he had no other options to “get [his] mother into a better situation,” he said, and was arrested for drug-related charges and battery.
After Dennis’ first arrest at 15, Lawndale Christian Legal Center helped him find a job and get other resources. But even with those supportive services, he was coming home to the same troubled living situation in the same area where he was surrounded by the same issues that led him towards trouble, he said.
It wasn’t until Lawndale Christian Legal Center provided Dennis with housing that his life stabilized, he said.
With the expanded Community Release With Support program, far more people will be able to “not only help themselves but also help others to see there’s a different way,” Dennis said.
“With the housing, it helped out a lot. It was my first time having a full-size bed. Before that, I was on the couch at my mother’s house. It put me in a way better situation. If I didn’t go through that program, I probably wouldn’t be where I’m at now,” Dennis said.
Having a home allowed Dennis the stability to go to vocational school to learn skills like bricklaying, blueprint reading, forklifting and construction, he said. He used these skills to start his own subcontracting business, which does moving, cleaning, gutter work and landscaping.
“I feel like this is the position I’ve needed to be in my whole life,” Dennis said.
McFarland similarly experienced legal issues for years brought on by struggles with addiction. Getting the treatment and services he needed allowed him to overcome his trouble with the law and become an asset to his community, he said.
“I cycled in and out of the criminal justice system for years, in and out of jail, because I was battling substance use dependency and lacked the resources that I needed to get on my feet, get a job and move forward,” McFarland said.
Any time a person is released from jail to await trial, they need support, McFarland said. All legal systems should be investing in an “infrastructure of support so people like me can change their lives around,” he said.
“This is the model that jurisdictions across the country should be looking at when they’re talking about getting rid of cash bail,” McFarland said.