Thousands of people languish in jail cells before ever going to trial, merely because they cannot afford bail. Families of those who are detained may be saddled with thousands of dollars of debt with bail bonds companies to release their loved ones. Often, they are Black women and Latinas who shoulder the burden of these debts, given the disproportionate rates that Black and Latino men are jailed.

Debt Collective, a union that organizes debtors, is announcing a new app that can relieve people of their bail debt if they’re California residents. The powerful new debt abolition tool could potentially abolish $500 million of bail debt thanks to a clever interpretation of state consumer protection law.

The app is web-based, featuring about 24 questions that ask debtors about their bail contracts. After the questionnaire, the website generates a dispute letter stating that the bail is illegitimate or unjust, explains Manuel Galindo, a carceral debt organizer with Debt Collective.

“Co-signers on any loan contract are entitled to certain consumer protections,” UCLA professor and Debt Collective Co-Director Hannah Appel shared with ESSENCE. “But bail bonds companies were not following that consumer protection law.” Courts have ruled that bail bonds contracts with a cosigner that didn’t follow those laws are null and void, and most of these contracts have cosigners.

California’s carceral debt system is especially punitive. As Debt Collective has noted, incarcerated people have an average of $13,607 in carceral debt, not including bail debt. The state’s median bail amount of $50,000 is 5 times the national average, and co-signers (disproportionately Black women and Latinas) owe $5,000 or more.

While the tool is only available in California for now, the Debt Collective’s work in fighting the carceral debt system— and providing practical relief for debtors— extends beyond the Sunshine State. The group has also announced that it has abolished about $3 million of probation debt belonging to 20,000 debtors in Mississippi and Florida.

Debt Collective has also zoomed out to address both the larger problem with carceral debt and America’s debt problem in general, noting the intentional choice to frame their work as debt “abolition” instead of debt “forgiveness.”

“There’s a lot of stuff [biblically] about debt as a sin…like maybe I’m in debt because I am financially irresponsible,” Appel shared. “But we really try to shift that narrative. Rather than debt forgiveness, we always insist on debt abolition, or debt cancellation, because it’s not the forgiveness of a sin. It’s the powerful insistence that the system is rigged, but that those of us who hold debts together can wield them collectively as leverage and demand a different system.”

And the collective’s work is not limited to bail or probation debt. “We’re using a framework called ‘carceral debt’ to encompass all the different costs of incarceration,” Galindo said. “So the general definition that we have for carceral debt is all forms of debt either created or worsened by an individual’s involvement in the criminal legal system, from initial booking all the way to the end of reentry.”

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This model considers the full scope of how incarceration perpetuates indebtedness. It encompasses pre-existing debts that someone had before being jailed or imprisoned, and that continue to pile up, like credit cards, medical bills, and other debts. It could also be “everything from having to pay for health care while incarcerated, pay[ing] for representation, phone calls, and video calls for family members, the cost of commissary, and other court-related fines and fees, [and this] list actually goes way longer,” Galindo added.

Carceral debt also includes debt that accrues when someone is released. “That could be everything from the cost of work release programs, the cost of ankle monitors, the cost for drug and alcohol testing, and individual’s reentry program fees,” he stated.

This whirlwind of indebtedness is a part of a larger system that ties most Americans to creditors.

“We always talk about household debt, because we are forced to debt-finance our basic needs. We’re forced to debt-finance our medical care, education, housing, and even incarceration, which is so far from a basic need,” Appel said.

And the money isn’t just going to corporations and banks.

“Government-run systems are no longer funded by taxpayer money, because we’ve seen this huge kind of conservative tax revolt, since the 1980s,” Appel added. “So what ends up happening when things are no longer publicly financed, is that they are ‘financialized.’ And that sounds like a big fancy word. But what it really means is that individual folks have to go into debt for those things that…used to be public.” And incarceration is no exception.

“In certain states [people are] paying for ‘room and board’ while incarcerated. That’s a kind of quintessential— but also frankly, horrific, racist, classist version of financialization. It’s the worst kind.”

While the Debt Collective is focused on material gains for individual debtors, it also recognizes the strength in numbers needed to change the system altogether.

“We are not in debt because we live beyond our means, but because we are denied the means to live,” its website states. “Since capitalism and our creditors depend on us paying our bills, we have leverage and power if we take action together….to end harmful policies and push for structural transformation and collective liberation.”

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