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Interview: Alec Karakatsanis of the Civil Rights Corps on Money Bail and Debtors’ Prisons

by Ken Silverstein

Alec Karakatsanis is the founder and executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Civil Rights Corps. He previously worked as a civil rights lawyer and public defender with the Special Litigation Division of the Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia and as a federal public defender in Alabama, representing impoverished people accused of federal crimes. He also co-founded the nonprofit organization Equal Justice Under Law.

When was the Civil Rights Corps founded and what are its main goals?

Civil Rights Corps was founded in 2016, and its main goals are to use innovative litigation, advocacy, and storytelling to dismantle the criminal punishment bureaucracy. The goal is to desensitize people to the everyday brutality of the system and to highlight that the system is set up to serve the interests of white supremacy and wealth.

How big of a national problem is the money bail system? Can you briefly describe a particularly egregious case CRC is challenging?

The money bail system detains about 400,000 human beings in cages every single night, solely because they cannot make a monetary payment. Millions more each year are released, but their families have to pay billions to for-profit commercial bail-bond companies who profit off of their misery. We just won a case in Harris County, Texas, which will save almost 20,000 people from being jailed every single year in the Houston metro area alone. Prior to our lawsuit, bail hearings lasted just a few seconds, people had no lawyers, and tens of thousands of people were detained for the entire duration of their case each year just because they couldn’t afford a few hundred dollars. This is standard practice in thousands of jurisdictions across the country.

But the problem is not just money bail. It is the related systems of pretrial detention and for-profit supervision. As we start to win the fight against money bail, many jurisdictions are trying to find ways to keep the same people in jail using different practices, for example by calling them “dangerous” and denying bail or by misusing “risk assessment tools.” Similarly, jurisdictions are trying to control and surveil the people they release with drug testing, home confinement, forced treatment, and electronic incarceration using GPS devices and phones. Much of this charges people for their own surveillance, racking up more cycles of debt.

Your website describes the criminal legal system as “an assembly line that normalizes modern debtors’ prisons and that uses the mass processing of criminal cases to generate revenue on the backs of the poorest people in our society.” Can you describe a concrete example?

Civil Rights Corps, in partnership with ArchCity Defenders and the Saint Louis University School of Law Legal Clinics, filed a landmark challenge to the City of Ferguson’s conversion of its legal system into a mechanism for generating revenue. When we sued, Ferguson averaged 3.6 arrest warrants per household. Almost all of them against Black people, and almost all of them relating to unpaid debts. People were jailed, and then the police, prosecutors, municipal court, and jailers would negotiate cash payments from their families toward their debts for their release. This became arguably the main function of the City’s entire “justice” system. This is not unique to Ferguson—I have seen these practices in every city and state where I have traveled in the past seven years.

How is the COVID-19 pandemic impacting your work and what action is CRC taking on that front?

We began litigation, advocacy, and communications work with our partners and clients around the country as soon as the pandemic hit. We have worked with local organizers, incarcerated people and their families, public defenders, and other nonprofits around the country to bring class action challenges to conditions in the jails in Miami, Chicago, Los Angeles, Dallas, Houston, Detroit, and several other places, including Oakland County, Michigan, and Prince George’s County, Maryland. We are trying to work with our clients and their families to tell the truth about what our society does to human beings in our cases, and never before have we seen a better moment to tell the story of this indifference and cruelty.

Do you think the protests over George Floyd’s death and police violence in general will lead to any significant criminal justice reform? What are the three most urgent priorities?

It is too early to tell, but I am optimistic because the energy, relationships, and knowledge of the people engaged in this movement feel more advanced than they did just a few years ago. Of course, the largely Democratic politicians who control most police forces and local criminal systems have proven very powerful foes who have won every battle to build and grow this monstrous punishment system. So, we have our work cut out for us. The three most urgent priorities, in my mind, are: 1) Dramatically reducing the size and funding of police forces; 2) Taking those resources and reinvesting them in the communities long targeted by police; 3) Connecting this struggle to a broader political fight and organizing for equality in health care, housing, environmental justice, education, workplace democracy, etc.

Is any notable reform possible given that there are so few members of Congress who seem willing to go very far on the issue?

I do not expect Congress to do anything other than to try to undercut the energy that we are seeing in the streets. They will do nothing meaningful unless a larger movement forces it, and that’s why all of our energy must turn toward asking how we can each help contribute to that larger movement.