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Taking aim at systemic racism, new Berkshire Bail Freedom Fund will help those without resources avoid pre-trial detention

The steps of Berkshire County Superior Court in Pittsfield, Massachusetts.
Josh Landes
The steps of Berkshire County Superior Court in Pittsfield, Massachusetts.

The founders of a new Berkshire County bail fund say they’re calling on community members to help save vulnerable residents who have not been convicted from pretrial detention.

The Berkshire Bail Freedom Fund officially launched in mid-August.

“A bail fund is a way that people who are given the pretrial bail amount- So, you have not been convicted of anything, you have been arrested, and as a pretrial situation, instead of being held in the county jail, they will also give you a bail, an amount that you can pay for your freedom until trial," said co-founder Justin Adkins. “Our goal would be to have enough money in a checking account that we can on a rotating basis help people. So, when you show up for your trial, the bail money is given back. The money itself is a holder of space. So if somebody shows when they show up for trial, then the money will come back into the fund and be able to use for someone else.”

Co-founder Peggy Kern says bail is a flashpoint for inequity and racism within the criminal legal system.

“Bail funds exist across the country, and ours will be similar to many other places," she told WAMC. "And it's basically a collection of donations that are available for low-income defendants who are being held pretrial on bail amounts they cannot afford to pay. The data is overwhelming about the damage this causes and the disproportionate impact that it has on low-income defendants and people of color, so the bail fund will be a resource for those families to secure their pretrial freedom as they address their case.”

First-term DA Andrea Harrington has moved her office away from the use of cash bail since her election in 2018. The progressive Democrat is facing a conservative challenge from Pittsfield attorney Timothy Shugrue in a hard-fought campaign for the September 6th primary.

“We decided to start this bail fund because I had previously been a volunteer with a different bail friend in this state, and I was contacted by a public defender in Berkshire County about two separate cases recently," said Kern. "From what I understand, [it was] the judge that had imposed bail on the defendants, not the DA’s office. So it looks like there are still cases that are getting through that are requiring bail support for people. And it's also worth remembering that district attorneys are elected officials, and currently, cash bail policy is dependent upon the DA who holds the office. So we also felt it was responsible for us to just be prepared for an uncertain future and to be ready to help if we need it.”

Kern says the Berkshire Bail Freedom Fund is a rallying cry for county residents to stand up to one of the more punishing aspects of America’s troubled legal system.

“People need to understand the outrageously heartbreaking impact that the cash bail system has had on communities," said Kern. "It is one of the mechanisms of mass incarceration. And in some places, there are more people sitting in jail who have not been convicted of a crime than people who actually have been convicted of a crime. So I think it's just important for residents to understand the impact of that system, and also that ultimately, I hope our goal as a state is to abolish cash bail at the state level so we're not dependent upon the discretion of the DA's office to make those decisions and we can have it codified into law, and that way, it is just policy.”

Berkshire residents attempting to access the new fund can visit BerkshireBailFund.com.

“You can reach us through there, you can email us via the website, and what we would anticipate is that most of the requests would be coming by the public defender's offices," said Kern. "So our sort of next step is to notify them that we are here and available. But certainly families can also reach out to us through the website.”

Josh Landes has been WAMC's Berkshire Bureau Chief since February 2018, following stints at WBGO Newark and WFMU East Orange. A passionate advocate for Western Massachusetts, Landes was raised in Pittsfield and attended Hampshire College in Amherst, receiving his bachelor's in Ethnomusicology and Radio Production. His free time is spent with his cat Harry, experimental electronic music, and exploring the woods.
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