It’s an early Saturday morning that feels colder and quieter than most Miami days, and groups of people slowly trickle in toward a registration booth at Barry University. Young volunteers eagerly sign people in, and a spread of colorful pamphlets, stickers, and political literature lies on a table. So begins the We Keep Us Safe Summit, an all-day conference discussing mass incarceration, pretrial detention, and cash bail in Miami.
The October event was an early kickoff to the Dream Defenders’ new campaign, Free the Block. Dream Defenders, a Florida-based community organization fighting racial injustices in the state, demand an end to the use of cash bail and pretrial detention in Miami. In their words: “Jails aren’t the solution — we are.”
Pretrial detention refers to the practice of holding an accused person in jail before a criminal trial. In Miami-Dade, up to 4,500 people are detained every day. Of the total county jail population, 79 percent of inmates are awaiting trial, meaning they have not yet been convicted of anything.
As part of the campaign, Dream Defenders is hosting regular court-watching sessions, modeling the work of other national organizations working on abolitionist reforms. The group hopes to encourage community participation in the court process, as well as hold judges and prosecutors accountable for decisions about pretrial detention. In these court-watching sessions, everyday people gather data and learn the ins and outs of routine legal proceedings.
“When you go to a Miami courtroom, most of the time, judges make decisions as quickly as one minute, and what we have realized is that they are able to get away with this because courtrooms are usually empty and nobody is watching them,” says Rodnika Cockroft, a community organizer working with the campaign.
The campaign is particularly focused on the race for Miami-Dade State Attorney this November. Melba Pearson, a former prosecutor in the State Attorney’s Office, is challenging longtime incumbent Katherine Fernandez Rundle. Pearson has pledged to end the use of cash bail for most accused defendants. As New Times recently reported, Rundle has already begun receiving campaign donations from the bail bond industry.
After speaking with Rundle, Free the Block volunteers recently learned the county plans to open another jail in the next several years, as noted in the county budget, which contains a line item to spend $400 million on “new jail facilities.” Dream Defenders, however, says building an additional county jail, even to replace a crumbling one, would create a financial incentive for more people to be jailed.
Free the Block reflects the public’s growing criticism of the often harsh, inhumane, and unacceptable conditions of mass incarceration. Criminal justice reform now has bipartisan support: Both Democrats and Republicans acknowledge the crisis is tearing communities apart.
In addition to hosting the court-watching sessions, Free the Block organizers are preparing for a year of cultural and political events, such as block parties, teach-ins, candidate forums, door-to-door canvassing, and meetings with both candidates for Miami-Dade state attorney. For now, they’re collecting signed petitions from voters and community members who support Free the Block, as well as hosting house meetings where organizers have candid and vulnerable conversations connecting the political campaign to people’s experiences.
“The work of this Miami campaign does not stand alone or in silos, but is rather part of a nationwide grassroots efforts of inventive, people-powered campaigns that have the direct goal of reducing jail populations, ending the profiteering of caging people, and divesting from a carceral system while investing in systems that fulfill the basic needs of people,” says Maya Ragsdale, a former Miami-Dade public defender and legal worker who supports the campaign.