This is the second article in Rewire‘s two-part series on the cash bail system. You can read the first part here.
Dorothy Adams, a 71-year-old Black woman struggling with poverty and mental illness, was arrested for stealing a can of peanuts on April 26 in Atlanta, Georgia. Adams thought the judge would let her go home since it was such a small offense, but instead he assigned her a $500 bail. After being held in jail for 15 days without a court date, Southerners on New Ground (SONG) bailed her out as part of the Movement for Black Lives’ Mama’s Day Bail Out Campaign this year. Adams’ charges have since been dismissed.
“I felt that I was entitled to a speedy trial and due process of law, but there was no one that I could go to,” Adams told Rewire. Adams’ only living son is in prison, and she had no one else to turn to for bail money. “I just kept praying. I said ‘Lord, you got to get me out of here. I’m lost up here. Don’t nobody find me. Don’t nobody care.’”
The vast majority of people held in jail because they cannot pay bail are, like Adams, vulnerable individuals who have fallen through the cracks in the United States’ social safety net. According to a 2015 study by the Vera Institute, nearly 75 percent of people in local jails are there for a nonviolent offense, and most of them have not yet been tried or convicted of anything.
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Any effective strategy to end the practice of cash bail must include the voices of people who have been held on bail.
The Black women Rewire interviewed recount that being held on bail further destabilized their lives, leaving them with even fewer resources to fight for justice than they had before. The experience is traumatizing and dehumanizing. In sharp contrast, when those women were bailed out by the National Bail Out Coalition, they found that having resources and love gave them the hope and strength to more effectively defend themselves and pursue justice for others in their positions.
“I think the campaign is very exciting. It’s the kind of thing [that is] educating people, organizing them, and getting them involved and engaged with this issue,” Alec Karakatsanis said about the national bailout campaign. Founder and executive director of Civil Rights Corps, Karakatsanis is an attorney leading litigation across the country to outlaw cash bail. “We’re never going to get national legislation [to end cash bail] passed unless we have a social movement of people forcing our society to think differently about these issues.”
When a judge assigns bail, it signals that the court has determined the defendant is safe to be released from jail as they await trial. When the condition of bail is cash, and folks cannot afford to pay it, the sole factor holding them in a cage is their poverty. This has little to do with public safety, but costs taxpayers a hefty sum.
As racial discrimination and economic inequality fuel a cycle of poverty and criminalization, the United States spends $14 billion per year on incarcerating presumptively innocent people. In New York City, it costs a staggering $167,731 to incarcerate an individual for a year, and 76 percent of the city’s incarcerated population are awaiting trial. From the perspectives of people who have been held on bail, these financial resources could be more effectively used to create support systems—such as health care that includes mental health and substance abuse counseling, increased government housing, and child care services—that would lower the number of people entering the prison system in the first place.
“As far as the homelessness going on around here, the mental health issues, I think the government can take some of their money and use it in another way to help people, instead of making money off of whatever they did,” said Cassandra Evans. A mother of six, Evans is a homeless Black woman living in the Bay Area who has struggled with mental illness since the fatal shooting of one of her sons.
Her $10,000 bail was paid by Essie Justice Group and Black Lives Matter Bay Area as part of the Mama’s Day Bail Out. Her charges were then lowered from a felony to misdemeanor, which Evans believes is because “when you’re out of jail on bail you have a better chance of fighting your case than being in custody.” She will be on probation for three years and have six months of therapy.
Homelessness is one of the greatest contributing factors to being incarcerated for poverty-related crimes. Yet once individuals are released from jail, few if any resources may be available to help them find housing. The majority of the incarcerated populations in the United States also suffer from mental illness. Meanwhile, many people held on bail are parents, and can be separated from their children by this cycle of homelessness and incarceration. This disproportionately affects Black families, with one in nine Black children having a parent who is incarcerated as of 2010.
After bailing folks out, the National Bail Out Coalition offers “stabilization support money” to allow them to address their needs—such as mental health services, temporary housing, or transportation—said Mary Hooks, co-director of SONG. The organizations in the coalition also partner with local mental health organizations for additional services.
“We come out of jail and we ain’t got nowhere to go. We come out of jail and we’re broken,” said Micah Larry. “Your kids are [in] one place, and you ain’t got nowhere to stay. That right there is the hardest thing for me.”
Fifty-one-year-old Micah Larry began struggling with substance abuse in her 30s. She was arrested after she missed court for a citation for disorderly conduct. Larry says she didn’t receive the letter with her court date because she was homeless and didn’t have a permanent address. Along with Adams, Larry is one of about 50 people SONG has bailed out this year.
Race and gender are also factors that increase the likelihood of being held on bail. Black people are disproportionately targeted at every stage of the criminal justice system, from being searched, to being charged bail, to receiving harsher sentences than their white counterparts. Black women are harshly affected by bail because they often have lower incomes and serve as their family’s support system, meaning they have no one to turn to if charged bail. This has become an increasing problem as the rate of female incarceration has spiked by over 700 percent in the past 30 years. Only 13 percent of women in the United States are Black, but Black women make up 44 percent of women in jail.
For Adams, being held on bail manifested in painful echoes of slavery.“I felt like a nigger in the South back in slavery days. I was in a dungeon. It was filthy, painful, and substandard,” she said.
In jail, Adams didn’t have access to her medication, which she depends on to regulate bipolar disorder, PTSD, and depression. “Mentally I was just gone,” she shared. “I couldn’t get anybody, because I don’t have anyone out here. When I left my apartment, I intended to come right back. Nobody knew where I was. I couldn’t even remember the phone number to the building where I lived. I couldn’t remember anything.”
The women I spoke with relayed that being bailed out by activists in the Movement for Black Lives not only gave them newfound hope for their own lives, but also inspired them to become politically active.
“You would never think that someone you don’t even know would be so kind and even think about Black mothers that are incarcerated. It was the most heartfelt thing I ever felt in my life,” Larry said. “What it gave me was hope. I was blessed and I was sincerely grateful. Nothing like that has ever happened in my life.”
“I am very grateful to know that there are organizations out there that are there for the people,” said Evans. “Whenever they need me I’m going to be here.”
Since her release, SONG has arranged for Adams to have eye surgery and brought her food, and she has attended events with the organization.
While the national bailouts will not end the deeply institutionalized system of cash bail on their own, the campaign generates increased attention and outrage, and brings more people into the movement to abolish the prison system. As those I spoke to shared, the bailouts also have a huge impact on the lives of the people who are given back their freedom by the activist efforts.
By using cash bail, the U.S. criminal justice system preys on the most vulnerable members of our society, widening inequality when those same resources could be channelled into the social safety net. And, as legal experts have explained, the system is unconstitutional. Listening to the perspectives of those whom our government has held in a cage because they could not pay bail will be central to making progress toward dismantling the cash bail system.