How Kansas City’s Cash Bail System is Destroying Black Wealth

The current “detention” facility is infamous for its nightmarish conditions which violate human rights law. It is not unusual to see “HELP” signs pressed against the outside-facing windows of the building.

In 2020, the Jackson County Justice System announced its plans to build a new mass caging facility. The reason the existing facility has deteriorated into a living hell is because the Kansas City Police Department continues to wage its decades-long war against Black, Brown, and low-income people.

To make matters worse, the majority of those detained at the Jackson County Detention Center have committed no “crime.” They are being held “pre-trial,” which means they are being held in jail because they are unable to pay the bail required for their release.

The current “detention” facility is infamous for its nightmarish conditions which violate human rights law. It is not unusual to see “HELP” signs pressed against the outside-facing windows of the building.

Despite the horrific upkeep of the current building and the violent abuse of its people who are imprisoned, the county predicted that its total jail population will increase 32% by 2050.

Building a new facility is based on the assumption that jail populations will surge over the next thirty years, as will the demand for their services. This misleading propaganda is produced by JCDC Partners, a private group of developers who profit from the jail’s construction, and other mostly rich white people who benefit from the imprisonment of Black people.

To be clear, jail populations have nothing to do with public safety. If safety was the priority, the same money being used to cage people would instead go to mental health services, housing, and transition services to assist people in leaving jails, not having “nicer” cages to live in.

What we are proposing, and what Black people have demanded for decades, is for our jail populations to decrease, for our focus to be on releasing people and transitioning people out of jails. This would be a far more impactful way to invest our money, especially given that a vast majority of people that are in jail are there because they cannot afford to pay bail.

Growing rates of incarceration in Jackson County and nationwide are in no way connected to “violent crime,” but instead are most often a result of the oppressive cash bail system.

Cash bail is the money that one pays to get released from jail after they have been charged but before conviction. More specifically, cash bail is a way for the system to profit off people who are arrested at higher rates and subjected to higher bail amounts.

The (in)justice system demands money that it knows people don’t have, leaving them with no other option but incarceration.

This profiteering can be seen in the case of former Jackson County Judge David Byrn, who left the county this year to work full-time as an advisor for JCDC. As a judge, Byrn served on the advisory committee that picked JCDC to develop the jail. Then, he immediately took a job with them. Conflict of interest? Without a doubt.

In Jackson County, cash bail has dramatically increased the carceral population, particularly for Black people. In fact, the pretrial population has more than doubled since the 1970s, and two-thirds of the population is made up of Black people, though they make up only 24% of the county population.

Cash bail’s impact on Black people in Jackson County proves it is violently racist, and the solution requires liberatory alternatives to criminalizing poverty.

In 2019, Missouri legislators passed the Money Bail Reform Act, which urged judges to release pretrial detainees on personal recognizance without requiring cash bail. But this reform still left the decision to individual judges, many of whom uphold an oppressive law-and-order philosophy of justice.

Statistics proved that this reform did very little to lower jail numbers in Jackson County, and the reform was overturned by state lawmakers in 2021, when they enacted a Republican-sponsored law which made “consideration of public safety” the main concern in setting bonds.

This law makes it even easier for judges to detain people without money to pay bail for long stretches of time. The only function of money bail is to extract money from low-income communities.

Want jail numbers to decrease? Stop putting a dollar amount on pretrial release. Jackson County has the authority to require judges to release detainees without extraction—a move that would eliminate the current and future need for new facilities.

The current Jackson County jail is uninhabitable, but a new, expanded jail does not solve the problem. Building a new jail only serves to increase the jail population and perpetuate an unjust system based on punishment.

Much of the conversation surrounding the new jail development has focused on the question of the new, bigger jail vs. the old, inhumane jail. However, we believe that all jails are inhumane, and the question should not be new vs. old jail but instead: How do we envision a world beyond jails? The elimination of cash bail in Jackson County is the first step toward that future.

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