As criminal justice reform gains momentum in the United States, and practices such as cash bail are being challenged, advocates nationwide are coordinating plans to help free incarcerated Black mothers and caregivers in time for Mother’s Day.
2019 marks the third annual Black Mama’s Bail Out campaign, a grass-roots, community movement focused on dismantling the cash bail requirement. With cash or money bail, individuals awaiting trial, plea bargain or a conclusion to their case must remain in jail unless they (or a relative, bail bond agent, etc.) can pay for their release.
Nearly half a million people who have not been convicted of a crime are locked up on any given day because they can’t afford to pay, according to the Prison Policy Initiative which analyzed U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics.
The system disproportionately affects the poor and communities of color: Black, Latinx, and Native Americans. And nearly 70 percent of women in jail who can’t afford money bail are mothers of children under 16.
“We wanted to make an intervention in how bail entraps and harms Black communities,” said Arissa Hall, project director of the National Bail Out (NBO) collective, a Black-led coalition of regional and national advocacy groups who are behind the Black Mama’s Bail Out campaign.
Hall told ESSENCE the endeavor grew out of a meeting in 2017 hosted by Color of Change and The Movement for Black Lives. Mary Hooks, a leader of Southerners On New Ground (SONG), is credited with conceiving the idea, which was developed with the input of fellow activists, lawmakers, and organizers.
“We left with two commitments: to destroy the racist system of money bail,” said Hall. “And to bail out Black mothers so they can celebrate Mother’s Day with their family.”
Since that time, NBO has helped secure the freedom of more than 300 individuals across the country. Nearly $2 million dollars has been raised by donors to fund bail and the groups’ overall criminal justice reform work, which includes providing opportunities for previously incarcerated women.
This year, bailouts are scheduled from May 6-12 in some two-dozen jurisdictions, among them, cities such as Cleveland, Memphis, Detroit, Baltimore, Philadelphia and Los Angeles.
“Black Mama’s Bail Out has always been carried out in the name of our ancestors in the tradition of freeing ourselves,” Hall added.
Besides offering freedom, there’s a broader issue at play, notes Marbre Stahly-Butts, a founding member of NBO and executive director of Law For Black Lives.
“We know that right now, women are the fastest growing prison population. There’s a real need to talk about how these systems impact women,” said Stahly-Butts, who believes such conversations should be inclusive of queer and trans women.
Describing mothers and caregivers largely as “the backbone of our communities,” she told ESSENCE, “when one of these women is taken away, it’s their children, partners, and the entire community that suffers.”
Indeed, advocates say the current bail system means that women and their families can lose jobs, housing or even custody of their children—and it can happen even when individuals are later cleared of charges.
Sometimes there are deadly consequences; Sandra Bland was found hanging in a Texas jail cell while awaiting bail following a 2015 traffic stop and arrest. Kalief Browder, a Black teen from The Bronx, spent three years behind bars at Rikers Island (much of it in solitary confinement) for allegedly stealing a backpack; two years after finally being released, he committed suicide in 2015.
Both of these high-profile cases, which stirred widespread outrage and activism, have helped to raise awareness and move the needle around cash bail reform.
California, for example, became the first state in the country to pass landmark legislation designed to end the money bail system. Governor Jerry Brown signed the law in August 2018, but after opposition from bail industry professionals, it’s now on hold. California voters will decide the matter via referendum on the ballot in November 2020.
A handful of places throughout the country, including Kentucky and the District of Columbia, have already implemented or are in the process of enacting systems that evaluate an individuals’ flight risk or danger to society in ways that reform proponents deem more fair. For instance, assessments would consider such factors as a person’s past criminal history and the current charge.
That said, many who champion bail reform say hurdles remain. Most local and state governments nationwide have money bail systems that force people to pay amounts set arbitrarily, without consideration for their ability to pay.
The dialogue around bail reform dovetails with the wider issue of criminal justice reform in the U.S. All three of the nation’s Black Senators–Kamala Harris (D-CA), Booker Cory (D-NJ), and Tim Scott (R-SC)—have championed the issue. And in the House of Representatives, Rep. Hakeem Jeffries co-authored the First Step Act, which seeks to propel formerly-incarcerated individuals toward success when they return home, while enacting targeted reforms that would improve public safety and reduce recidivism. Supported by multiple members of the Congressional Black Caucus, it was signed into law by President Donald Trump in December 2018.
Sen. Harris, now a Democratic presidential contender, has been outspoken about bail reform.
“Our justice system was designed with a promise: to treat all people equally,” said Harris in a statement. “In our country, whether you stay in jail or not is wholly determined by whether you’re wealthy or not – and that’s wrong.”
In the 115th Congress, Harris co-authored The Pretrial Integrity and Safety Act of 2017, bipartisan bill that incentivizes states to reform or replace money bail, and ensure equal treatment for all people. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX) was among the lawmakers who introduced companion legislation in the House of Representatives. While neither measure passed, a Harris aide told ESSENCE that the Senator intends to collaborate with fellow lawmakers to reintroduce the bill.
“Justice is supposed to be blind, which means that justice is impartial and objective,” said Lee in a statement. “The Supreme Court ruled in Bearden v. Georgia in 1983 that the Constitution prohibits punishing a person for his poverty.’ We can do better, and we should do better. …It is time for bail reform.”
The organizers behind the Free Black Mama’s Bail Out campaign agree.
“We’re excited,” said Hall. “This is going to be bigger and better than ever, building this beloved community and leading to fundamental change.”