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Activists bail women out of jail to ensure more happy Mother’s Days

Activists bail women out of jail to ensure more happy Mother’s Days
Activists seeking to get mothers released from jail protest outside Maricopa County Atty. Bill Montgomery's office in Phoenix on Thursday. (Ross D. Franklin / Associated Press)

Paz Lopez was set to spend Mother’s Day behind bars. The 42-year-old mother of six had been locked up in a Phoenix jail for the last month on forgery and other charges. She couldn’t post her $2,050 bail.

But on Thursday night she walked out and into a car waiting to give her a ride home, thanks to a drive to bail out moms so they can spend Mother’s Day with their kids. In a tearful video made immediately after her release, Lopez said it was a privilege that she would now get to see her children. She welled up when speaking about the coming birth of her first grandchild.

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“There’s just no greater feeling than being a mother,” Lopez said. “I'm grateful for both of you to help me be able to spend the day with them and be able to see my grandchild be born.”

Lopez had her bail covered by Living United for Change in Arizona, or LUCHA, a social and racial justice group. The organization said it was inspired to do this for a second year by an initiative known as “Black Mamas Bail Out,” which is posting bail for dozens of mothers of color for the third straight year.

The effort is organized by National Bail Out, a coalition of grassroots groups, attorneys and activists nationwide. The campaign hopes to bail out more than 100 women in 35 cities in time for Mother’s Day. The objective is not just to reunite families but to push for change in the cash bail system.

Critics of the system contend the nation’s courts are unfairly punishing poor defendants by setting high bail for low-level crimes, causing them to languish in jail for months and separating them from their jobs and families. In some cases, they remain locked up until their case is dismissed or they take a guilty plea just so they can get out of jail, albeit with a criminal record. There has been a national push to reform bail by advocates who say incarceration should depend on a suspect’s risk to public safety, not on their ability to pay.

Mary Hooks, co-director of Atlanta-based Southerners on New Ground, came up with the idea in 2016. She joined with Law For Black Lives, a female-led network of lawyers and legal advocates, to create a collective of organizations. It's been difficult at times to get sympathy, she said, because people often think someone sitting in jail pretrial must have done something wrong.

“We’re in a political time right now where ‘Barbecue Becky’ or anyone else can call the police on someone and you can get arrested instantly for barbecuing,” Hooks said, referring to the white woman who called police on two black men using a grill in an Oakland, Calif., park. The men were not arrested. “This notion ‘you're in jail because you’ve done something horrible’ — we have to remind ourselves we have a Constitution that says ‘innocent until proven guilty.’”

Jaymeshia Jordan of Oakland said she would have faced 10 more months in jail if she hadn't been rescued by a bailout two days before last Mother’s Day by the Essie Justice Group, an Oakland advocacy organization. Jordan, who declined to say what she was arrested for, faced a $450,000 bail. She had no way of paying even a fraction of that on her own or with a bail bondsman.

“I would have just sat in custody till my case was over,” Jordan said.

She was in jail for three months. In that time, her 5-year-old son lost his first tooth and learned how to tie his shoes.

Organizations choose whom to assist based on referrals from attorneys and other activists. They don’t take into account whether a woman is accused of a violent or nonviolent crime. According to the collective’s organizers, the mothers they help show up at court at “high rates” but the majority of the money they’ve handed out for bail hasn’t been returned.

LUCHA, the Phoenix group, plans to fund as many bail releases as possible with the $9,000 they have raised. Organizer Nicole Hale said they will offer mothers additional support including court date reminders and rides.

“We don’t just hand someone a piece of paper and say, ‘Good luck.’ They don’t have to go through the system alone,” Hale said.

Several studies suggest that bail amounts are set sometimes as much as three times higher for people of color, said Shima Baughman, a criminal law professor at the University of Utah College of Law. Even a $200 bail for a misdemeanor crime can be beyond what’s in a person’s bank account.

According to a 2018 report from the nonpartisan Prison Policy Initiative, roughly 2.9 million women are jailed in the U.S. every year. An estimated 80% are either pregnant or have children.

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Women of color are more heavily affected, especially if they are working mothers who likely earn lower salaries, according to Baughman. A few days in jail can lead to the loss of a job or child custody.

“When women are the ones that bear most of the burdens in the family, their kids are the ones that are going to suffer,” Baughman said. “Because in many families, women are responsible for working outside the home and also for child-care, they can face dire circumstances with their children when they are forced to serve even a couple of nights in jail.”

Jeff Clayton, executive director of the American Bail Coalition, said some of these Mother’s Day bailouts are publicity stunts that don’t tackle the larger issue of affordability of bail. It’s unrealistic for organizers to call for a cash-free bail system, he added.

“Not to say these people aren’t doing good work,” Clayton said. “But it’s questionable whether saying they’re an abolitionist and banning all money bail is really the best solution.”

In the last few years, several states have made moves to overhaul their bail systems, including New Jersey, Alaska and New Mexico. There are more than 200 bail reform bills nationwide, according to Baughman. In California, voters will decide next year whether to overturn a law eliminating bail altogether for suspects awaiting trial. Instead, counties would set up their own risk-assessment programs through probation departments.

However, computer algorithms or risk-assessment programs can be biased as well, Baughman said.

Paying for bail has become a growing strategy for local communities to divert the prison pipeline. Last month, rapper T.I. and VH1's “Love and Hip Hop” personality Scrapp Deleon joined with an Atlanta church to help post bail for nonviolent offenders for Easter. They exceeded their goal and raised $120,000. Sixteen men and seven women got to go home.

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