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Sheriff’s press release announcing legal bailout of Black inmates causes backlash

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Dane County Sheriff Dave Mahoney

An unusual press release from the Dane County Sheriff’s Office (DCSO) on Monday announced that three Black inmates at the Dane County Jail had posted bond and been released.

An inmate who has not been convicted, and who is presumed innocent, posting bail is usually not a newsworthy event. However, Sheriff Dave Mahoney said he felt it important to announce these releases because their bail was posted by Free the 350 Bail Fund, an organization that “seeks to prioritize bailing out Black people incarcerated in the Dane County jail system, and also seeks to end the unjust and antiquated prison and jail system in general,” according to its website. It uses donated funds to post bond for Dane County Jail inmates.

In an email message Monday, Mahoney said his office has announced inmates posting bail “on some occasions,” and said his office would continue to do so “if in the best interest of the community.”

The press release said the three inmates were released on bail that added up to $133,500. It says they were being held on charges including first-degree intentional homicide, armed robbery and burglary. The press release includes the names and booking photos of those bailed out.

“‘Free The 350’ has and continues to accuse the criminal justice system of denying to release ‘non-violent’ individuals on low bail from jail,” he wrote. “Well the community should know who they are contributing dollars to for bail and who is getting released.”

It does not appear that any professional news outlets published the news release, but it still drew criticism.

Apparently the Sheriff’s Office is unfamiliar with the fundamental legal principle of presumption of innocence and the constitutional right to bail,” Dane County Supervisor Heidi Wegleitner said in a Facebook message to Madison365. ” I do not recall a DCSO press release regarding a bail release for any White people lately. Do you? The Free the 350 Bail Fund has been doing incredible work to release Black people from Dane County jail who are stuck there only because they lack the resources to be released.  These are peoples’ daughters, sons, sisters, and brothers. They freed people at great risk to COVID infection while sitting in jail awaiting trial. I hope this release, an apparent reaction to the bail fund’s recent historic success, only strengthens the Free the 350 Bail Fund donor base.”

“I wasn’t surprised,” said M Adams, co-executive director of Freedom Inc. Adams does not have personal involvement in the fund but Freedom Inc. helped develop Free the 350 and continues to promote it. “Sheriff Mahoney lauds himself as progressive, as someone who seems to be current on race issues. (But Mahoney was) demonstrating publicly and proudly the exact reason why we developed the Free the 350 Bail fund.”

Adams said the press release implies guilt when the suspects have yet to be tried in court.

“One of the truths and tragedies of the prison industrial complex is … that Black people are seen as inherently guilty,” she said. “Black people are detained, incarcerated, judged before they even go to court. And I think he did exactly that.”

Adams said the Free the 350 was developed to keep the jail from being “a poor-house.”

“The only reason those people were incarcerated still was that they didn’t have the money to pay. If they were rich, they wouldn’t have been locked up, and he wouldn’t have been writing a press release about what he deemed to be a miscarriage of justice,” Adams said.

“Shaming people for bailing people out of jail is so profoundly f**** up. Wish I could give @FreeThe35 10 times what I have given,” journalist Scott Gordon wrote on Twitter.

“Really telling on themselves here,” wrote UW professor Marcus Cederstrom. “They clearly believe that they should be able to arrest and imprison people without any pretense of due process and that those people should be imprisoned for as long as the sheriff’s office deems necessary.”