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Opinion >  Guest Opinion

Abbey McMahon: Cash bail system is unjust

Abby McMahon

It doesn’t take an issue expert to see how unjust our country’s system of cash bail is. For centuries, it’s wreaked havoc on people of color and the poor, as it forces the innocent to stay in jail because they cannot front the cash for bail. The archaic and debilitating nature of cash bail is obvious to anyone who takes a moment to learn about it – or who’s lived through its painful effects on families and communities across the country.

I, however, have a closer view – I am an issue expert on cash bail. I am a King County public defender and president of the SEIU 925 Department of Public Defense chapter. I’ve been a public defender for 13 years, working in a variety of criminal and civil mental health contexts. For years, I’ve watched as families scrape together what little money they may have to pay a bonding company to get their loved one out of jail, knowing that that premium will never be returned to them, not even if the case is later dismissed or the defendant is exonerated. I’ve seen their faces drained of hope as they realize the price of freedom is severe debt.

Like most of my colleagues, I chose public defense work because of a deep commitment to equity and social justice. We took this job to defend the historically marginalized so that they can tell their stories and speak their truth. We do it because everyone deserves dignity and respect in the eye of the law. We do it because we want to dismantle the very systems that perpetuate inequality.

Therefore, we were shocked to learn that our pensions, the money we work hard for every day to ensure a livable retirement, are being invested in companies that perpetuate the very backward systems we are working to abolish. Specifically, I’m talking about the Washington State Pension Board’s investment in the bail bonds industry, which so violently preys on our vulnerable clients, via an investment firm called Endeavour Capital.

Endeavour Capital owns the largest bail bonds company in America – Aladdin Bail Bonds – and is a top political donor for the defense of the cash bail industry. Endeavour has poured $974,849 into the fight to keep cash bail in California, accounting for 28 percent of the total contributions to the campaign to roll back last year’s reforms. Here in Washington, the company has spent around $100,000 in the last year alone.

That means $100,000 of our collective public pension fund has gone directly into the defense of the bail industry. Election cycle after election cycle, up and down the Pacific, Aladdin has poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into candidates who will work to defend this unjust system.

That’s why I’m working with Color Of Change to demand the Washington State Investment Board end its public investment in Aladdin Bail Bonds through Endeavour Capital. It is immoral to fund the predatory practices of the bail industry, especially on the backs of our clients. A robust portfolio does not require selling your soul, and my financial stability should not come at the price of negating the work I’ve dedicated my life to. There are too many other profitable and more equitable ways to invest my money to allow the Investment Board to continue funding this industry.

In the criminal justice system, freedom is fairness. If free, our clients can better prepare for trial and better assist their defense attorneys – they no longer feel the pressure to plead guilty just to get out of jail. By no longer propping up this industry, we can begin to bring equity to an unjust, racially biased criminal justice system. It starts with the Washington State Investment Board listening to those it claims to be working on behalf of, and divesting from Endeavour Capital.

Abbey McMahon is a King County Public Defender and president of the SEIU 925 Department of Public Defense chapter. McMahon is working with Color Of Change to demand the state of Washington divest from the cash bail industry.

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