Throughout my life, I have been a big proponent of truly experiencing things first hand — getting out of your comfort zone and becoming an active participant in what is happening around you.
Being an active citizen means so much more than just reading and discussing what you’ve heard in the news. When I started hearing more about cash bail in Philadelphia through discussions with friends and different news outlets, I realized that I did not know much about the criminal justice system as a whole. While I was aware of some of the issues, I knew I needed a deeper level of involvement if I wanted to formulate justifiable thoughts and contribute positively to bending the arc toward a more equitable system. Participating in the Philadelphia Bail Watch program was a chance to immerse myself in something I knew little about and push myself out of that comfort zone.
Reflecting on what I witnessed during Saturday afternoon bail hearings is still a difficult task. You can read things, you can watch the news and documentaries all you want, but to sit in that basement room, watching poor-quality CCTV conference calls and quick decisions being made, it all became a lot more real. And I quickly became a lot more uncomfortable. Uncomfortable because growing up in a small town in a white middle-class family, I was privileged enough to never have to know how bail worked. Uncomfortable because my reality is not the reality for any of those individuals on the screen that day and countless others. I watched about 15 people, mostly around my age, be given about 45 seconds of attention resulting in a decision determining if they could go home or continue to sit in jail — the latter of which I believe to have objectively detrimental impact on an individual. Uncomfortable because I could have easily made the same decisions as many of these individuals and, at the end of the day, I wouldn’t be spending the night anywhere but my own home solely because I can afford to pay my way out.
It’s good to be uncomfortable at times; I think it’s where the true learning happens. But I’ll also be the first to admit it’s hard to be uncomfortable and it’s hard to know what to say about an experience like watching bail hearings. There’s a lot that is still upsetting as I am sitting here reflecting on that experience. I still have a lot of overwhelming feelings about how broken the whole system is and wanting to figure out ways to help make it at least slightly more equitable.
It comes from a place of privilege to sit on that side of the glass and dream of a better system than cash bail. For many Philadelphians, it’s simply the status quo and they aren’t able to see a brighter future. They’ve been beat down by a system that has clear biases across the board and trying to say otherwise would be wrong. I could go on for pages about what I feel is wrong and what needs to be changed, but I think a lot of it is the same things that have been said by many before me. And I think this next step is getting involved. Finding your little corner of the world in which you can become involved and informed and be a voice for those who aren’t able to be a loud enough voice for themselves. My experience with Philadelphia Bail Watch has provided me with that little corner of the world to know where to begin and I will continue to be involved and have more of those uncomfortable conversations. And maybe, over time, I’ll be able to better articulate to others what this process looks and feels like, and why it is problematic. Or, even better, more people will get involved and be able to reflect for themselves.
— Christine, reflections from April 28, 2018
Disclaimer: The views of Philadelphia Bail Watch volunteers do not necessarily reflect the views of the Philadelphia Bail Fund and/or Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts. Sign up to volunteer with Philadelphia Bail Watch here.