In 2016, 75 percent of the 505 inmates housed in Broome County Jail had yet to be convicted of a crime. Instead, they were unable to make bail, confined until their trial date.
In response to these statistics, students in WGSS 282C: Activism, Feminism and Social Justice, taught by Dara Silberstein, executive director and visiting assistant professor of women, gender and sexuality studies, organized “Beat Bail and Avoid Jail.” The discussion, held Tuesday night, featured guest speakers who aimed to promote conversation about bail reform.
Binghamton University students and faculty participated in the guided conversation, led by a panel of guest speakers including Bobby Black, a Binghamton area resident and a former regional state board director of Citizen Action of New York, a grass-roots organization that addresses social issues throughout the state and Adam Wilkes, an intern at the Southern Tier chapter of Citizen Action of New York and a senior majoring in sociology. The conversation spanned a wide range of issues, including the implications of bail reform.
“Bail reform is one of those things that can bring a lot of structural change to a community without requiring a huge cost to taxpayers,” Wilkes said. “It’s one of those things Republicans and Democrats can get behind.”
Bail, which is used to prevent people accused of crimes from running or avoiding trial, can be posted after an individual’s arraignment. When bail can’t be paid, they will remain in jail. Black said low-income individuals often have long stays in jail, not because they’ve been convicted, but because they can’t afford bail.
“People, when they talk about jails, they have this idea in their mind that a lot of them are violent criminals or they’ve committed these terrible crimes and that’s why they’re in there on bail,” Black said.
According to Caitlin Maguire, a sophomore double-majoring in philosophy, politics and law and environmental studies, the event served as a capstone experience for students in Silberstein’s class and allowed them to focus on engaging in applied learning outside the classroom. Maguire said although it was occasionally stressful, organizing the event for their final grade was rewarding for her and the students in her group.
“The focus was never really the grade, but making sure that we achieved what we set out to do and created something we were proud of,” Maguire said. “I know I’ve gained more tangible organizing skills from this class than in any other I’ve taken at [BU] so far.”
According to Black, between 70 and 82 percent of prisoners in Broome County Jail are impoverished, and remain in jail until they go to trial.
“About four out of five people in Broome County Jail are poor,” Black said. “It’s essentially a debtor’s prison.”
Despite having direct connections to the greater Binghamton community, few University students are aware of many issues affecting Broome County residents. This, Maguire said, is one of the reasons students have a responsibility to shed light on problems such as bail reform.
“So many of the students here only interact with members of the community on Friday and Saturday nights,” Maguire said. “We have a responsibility to rectify that largely one-way relationship.”