Jail is often a hellish, traumatic experience. Just ask Terrance Koontz, an organizer for the Texas Organizing Project, one of Vera’s partners in the effort to end money bail. “Your blood pressure goes up when you get in there. You feel your humanity stripped of you very quickly. Seeing the water fountain over the toilet was disgusting to me, and there was no soap in the dorm. The night I went in, a guy was slapped by the officer for getting out of his bed. There is no help. You are property of the system.”

The majority of people in America’s jails are not confined in these terrible conditions because they are guilty of a crime or pose a threat to public safety. Instead, they’re in jail because they cannot afford to buy their freedom through bail. This burden falls heaviest on Black people, due to a criminal legal system that was born at a time when they were not considered human under the law, one that continues to mete out punishment along racist lines.

The money bail system criminalizes poverty, destroys lives, and wastes public resources while failing to make us safer. Vera is committed to eradicating money bail and providing communities around the nation with the tools to build pretrial systems built on the four pillars of good bail reform: promoting public safety, reducing jail populations, reducing racial disparities, and reducing the use of money. Using decades of experience fighting to end money bail, including a key role in the 2020 passage of landmark bail legislation in New York, Vera continues to advocate for sustaining and expanding reforms to the bail system.

The lessons learned in New York—what good bail legislation looks like, and how to fight against backlash—have served Vera well in its work in other states. Vera was on the front lines of efforts to advocate for an end to money bail in California, Texas, and Michigan. We also played a supportive role to the coalition that passed a landmark bail reform bill in Illinois in early 2021.

In California: Vera’s analysis, expertise, and advocacy helped convince voters to reject problematic Senate Bill 10, which could have resulted in expanded incarceration and pretrial supervision. Vera is working with a coalition of partners, including The Bail Project, ACLU, and local advocates like Essie Justice Group and Silicon Valley DeBug to draft comprehensive bail reform legislation to be introduced in California in 2022.

In Michigan: After modest pretrial reforms were passed in Michigan, a broad coalition of advocates sought to introduce a more comprehensive bill. This coalition asked Vera to provide our advocacy, research, and technical assistance expertise to their effort, given our experience on bail reform efforts in California, New York, and Texas. Vera serves as an advisor to the chief justice of the Michigan state supreme court and is providing staff support to the chief justice’s pretrial working group.

In Texas: Since 2019, Vera has worked with Harris County (Houston), Texas, to pass an automatic release measure that would eliminate bail for more than 50 nonviolent felonies. Harris County’s bail reform efforts have resulted in more than 16,000 people annually avoiding time in jail, saved the county millions of dollars in pretrial detention costs, and have not compromised public safety. Despite those successes, the state passed a bail bill that is likely to exacerbate wealth-based disparities. Vera is working closely with a bipartisan coalition (including Faith and Freedom Coalition, Prison Fellowship, the ACLU, and others) to fight these rollback measures.

Terrance Koontz, who shares his experience in a Texas jail as part of these advocacy efforts, pinpoints why this work is so important:

When I was in jail, I heard a younger guy there calling everybody he could to get $150. He was around 19. I could hear him asking somebody to pawn his PlayStation. I remember him trying to put on a presentation like he was unbothered and strong, but I could feel the despair. Like, ‘I really want to get out of here, but I am trying to keep this poker face on.’ It broke my heart to see somebody stuck in jail for $150. That is like pocket change to some people. There are people who will blow that in a bar in 30 minutes. Meanwhile, there are people whose entire family can’t pull together $150. People lose their jobs, lose their housing. I pray and I hope that within my lifetime I am able to witness real criminal justice reform; real bail reform. Hopefully there will be a point in this lifetime that I am able to see justice in its truest form.