Season 2 | Episode 19
Jun 5, 2020

It’s expensive to get arrested

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A teenager protesting police brutality lands in jail, and we try to understand the tricky business of bail.

Harmony knew there was a chance she’d be arrested while protesting the police killing of George Floyd last weekend.

The 19-year-old memorized her emergency contact number and hit the Pittsburgh streets with a friend. Harmony figured that if they did get arrested, it’d likely be a slap on the wrist.

Instead she got tear-gassed, cuffed and brought to county jail, held with 20 other women in a small room.

“They were saying like, oh, no. Not another one,” Harmony said. We’re withholding her last name to protect her privacy. “They were saying, you’re gonna get sick. We were not able to social distance at all. Like, it was an extremely tiny room.”

Harmony was eventually charged with failure to disperse and disorderly conduct. After 36 hours, the Bukit Bail Fund of Pittsburgh got her out. If they hadn’t chipped in for her $10,000 bail, Harmony said, she would have stayed in jail for 12 days awaiting trial.

“I was just preparing for the worst,” she said. “I would have been fired for sure.”

On today’s show, we’re looking at the real costs and ripple effects of being arrested and held on cash bail, and we’re examining the work of bail funds.

In the last week, donors flooded bail funds like Bukit with thousands, even millions, of dollars to support people protesting police brutality and the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and so many other Black people.

Community bail funds were often used by the civil rights movement, but the first bigger, more formal funds started working against cash bail a few years ago. At any given time, almost half a million people are in jail awaiting trial in America, mostly because they couldn’t afford bail.

“We have this two-tiered system of justice, one that treats wealthy people and poor people differently. One for black and brown people, and one for everyone else,” said NYU law professor Vincent Southerland, who works with the nonprofit Bail Project. He says bail “punishes the poor and allows the wealthy to buy their way out of incarceration.”

But when a court system started relying on bail funds as part of its operation, it made one organization question whether it’s further entrenching an unequal system by paying into it.


For more “This Is Uncomfortable,” don’t forget to subscribe to our newsletter. We have more stories from the George Floyd protests, along with some recommendations from our team. Here’s the latest issue, in case you missed it.

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