The year 2020 has only barely begun, and it’s already a lot. Yet in the midst of the Trump impeachment trial and recently minted British royals politely declining to stick around for Brexit, one of the most important battles of this new decade is underway over an issue that impacts Black and Latinx Americans in disproportionately large numbers: bail reform.
As of January 1, new rules that passed as part of the budget via the New York legislature in April of last year officially went into effect statewide, with near-immediate results in the courts. The key change within the approved measure removed altogether the option to set cash bail for dozens of misdemeanor and non-violent felony offenses. Inspired by the tragic case of Kalief Browder, a young man who died by suicide not long after some three years jailed on the notorious Rikers Island awaiting trial over charges that were ultimately dismissed, the move marked a major step towards fixing one of the most broken aspects of the American criminal justice system.
In recent years, a number of local New York politicians have included cash bail abolition or reform in their platforms, including attorney Tiffany Cabán, who lost her 2019 bid for Queens District Attorney in a primary recount by a mere 55 votes. The issue has entered the national race for president as well, with nearly all of the current Democratic primary contenders publically adopting the stance against the practice.
Yet days before the reforms were active in New York, law enforcement spokespeople, Republican politicos, and right-leaning media outlets like the New York Post took to doomsaying the loss of cash bail, utilizing familiar rhetoric about unsafe streets, catch-and-release chaos, and the like to build an atmosphere of fear around the loss of cash bail as a way to keep bad guys behind bars. Exploiting a wave of anti-Semitic hate crimes in the city around the holidays, the campaign hardly let up in the first few days of the new year, putting Democratic politicians on the defensive and setting the stage for rollbacks in the now just-returning New York legislature.
For those blissfully unaware of the inherent unfairness of cash bail, it’s a practice with devastating consequences for those unable to pay. In principle, it should act as an incentive for an accused party to return for necessary court appearances or trial, after which the amount is to be reimbursed regardless of plea or verdict. However, those unable to pay in the first instance spend untold amounts of time in jails like Rikers, subject to emotional and physical threats and traumas on the inside, as well as external consequences ranging from lost wages and unemployment to long-term economic penalization. To make matters worse, innocent people held in pretrial detention have clear incentives to take plea deals from prosecutors, as opposed to spending months or years in jail waiting for their proverbial day in court.
As such, despite being innocent until proven guilty in the eyes of the law, the poor suffer for the same crimes in ways that those with means to pay bail do not. Given the myriad issues of systemic and individual bias in law enforcement, people of color of course feel the brunt of this institutionalized discrimination. And like so many living and working in neighborhoods and communities of color, hip-hop artists from unsigned talents to major label superstars are negatively impacted as well.
“Culture becomes a weapon,” explains Scott Hechinger, a Senior Attorney with Brooklyn Defender Services who works as a public defender in the borough and a vocal advocate for decarceral criminal justice system reform online. “Prosecutors not infrequently attempt to use creative expressions — hip-hop songs, videos and other content — against the young people we represent to try to paint them as dangerous, violent criminals & gang members.” With the new reforms now applying to so many misdemeanors and felonies once subject to cash bail, the system blocks such specious attempts to paint rappers and musicians as criminals by association or allusion can’t be used as justifications for detaining these accused persons.
“Police scour personal Facebook and YouTube pages looking for content to fit their narrative,” Hechinger says of how our love for hip-hop has been used against us. “They claim photos of young men on social media are ‘self-admissions’ of gang affiliation, which are then used by prosecutors to justify excessive bail, long pre-trial detention, and lengthy prison sentences.”
Whether highlighting instances of rappers who caught cases or tackling civilian stories of outrage in the system, plenty of rap blogs and broader popular music publications use their platforms to address topics of criminal justice. More than six years after George Zimmerman’s acquittal gave prominence to #BlackLivesMatter, the national movement’s legacy includes a shift in culture writing to cover these issues to some extent. Some have taken a “woke” stance by reporting on the likes of Kodak Black and XXXtentacion in ways not necessarily flattering to those artists, while others opt towards pure fan service. The latter editorial option warrants some criticism, particularly when the charges pertain to domestic violence. That said, outlets with non-white editorial or ownership have good reason to be wary of law enforcement narratives against rappers, all too aware of the criminal justice system’s failings and institutionalized biases against Black and brown people who find themselves impacted by it in disproportionately high numbers.
With anti-reform disinformation gaining traction on social media as well as in the local political rhetoric, hose in entertainment and culture media who care about hip-hop and the communities of color from which so many of its talents emerge ought to be actively covering and defending bail reform in New York. Fighting disinformation with information at this juncture feels crucial, especially as reform comes under fire from those who seek a return to the unfair and cruel status quo we only just moved away from mere weeks ago. These efforts can come via op-ed pieces like the one you’re currently reading, via the contextualization of news coverages, or through social media information sharing–and that’s just a few examples.
“Journalists of all kinds, but particularly those who reach an audience with diverse interests and experiences, those who are younger, new voters, and natural allies in the fight for justice who may just not be yet activated, can do enormous public good by covering critical social justice issues,” says Hechinger, who adds that sensationalist media outlets have long served the opposite cause to detrimental effect. “They are engaged in a coordinated campaign to stoke hatred and fear to roll back landmark bail reform before it even really begins.”
As we know, with the rise of hip-hop, rap, and R&B as the 21st century’s pop format of choice, media outlets and writers without a personal stake in or material connection to communities of colors are covering the genre grouping with regularity. In doing so, white-owned, white-run, and white-perceived publications generate clicks and revenue streams for writing about this music, which subjects them to accusations of culture vulturing or appropriation, albeit with few real world consequences.
It is to this end, then, that the editors and writers working at or with such outlets must be active and vocal allies in the fight to preserve decarceral reforms and further the cause of ending mass criminalization in New York or otherwise. These music and culture publications enrich themselves from this music, and have an obligation to participate in a demonstrable way if they wish to be perceived as part of this ecosystem as allies as opposed to parasites. It is not enough to simply report these stories as news items, as we saw with Meek Mill’s compounding legal woes in Philadelphia. Educating themselves about the details of bail reform and the wider contemporary abolitionist movement must occur, and those who primarily experience the culture from behind a keyboard need to step out of their comfort zones to engage in real life with those in communities of color for whom this reform helps most.
“Mass criminalization—the range of laws and practices that intersect inside and outside of court to devastate and marginalize predominantly Black and Latino people and communities—is the civil rights issue of our time,” says Hechinger. So while cash bail reform is a major step, there are lots of other issues with the legal system where people of color are still disproportionately punished. And music journalists need to speak out.