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Groups Look To Bail Out Mothers, Caregivers In Pretrial Detention

Above photo: Cara McClure of Faith & Works discusses business with her team during a meeting in Birmingham, Alabama on May 6th, 2024. Andi Rice for Alabama Reflector.

The number of people held in pretrial detention has skyrocketed in the last four decades.

It can lead to trauma and economic struggle.

Yolanda Johnson’s nightmare began in the summer of 2021.

As she recalls, a former boyfriend pushed her around, hitting an area on her body where there were previous burns. She threw hot water at him and brandished a knife to get him to back away.

“He was much bigger than I was, and I was trying to defend myself,” Johnson said in a recent interview. “I wasn’t really trying to stab him, but I poked him enough to back off of me.”

No one called the police, and Johnson left. A few days later, she returned.

“When I did come back, I guess the neighbor or somebody must have called and said that I was there, and they came and wrote my name, and took me in,” Johnson said.

She was charged with domestic violence, along with first- and third-degree assault. Johnson was placed in jail.

“I was devastated,” she said. “I didn’t even think the law was involved in it at all. It happened. I was very remorseful for what I did. It is something that I had to face the consequences.”

Johnson spent three weeks in a holding cell before a hearing where a judge set her bail at $20,000. There was no way she could pay that amount. She worked off the books at a hair salon owned by a family member. So Johnson had to return to jail.

“It was horrible,” she said. “Your freedom is gone. You can’t eat what you want to eat, do what you want to do, you can’t sleep when you want to sleep. You have to wake up in turn. By 4 a.m. you had to be up. By 5 a.m. you eat breakfast. By 11 a.m. you are eating lunch. When it is on lockdown, you are on lockdown.”

She would remain incarcerated, languishing in jail, had it not been for Cara McClure, founder of the Faith & Works Collective, a social justice organization that focuses on mass incarceration. The organization learned about her situation, reviewed her case, and interviewed her regarding her circumstances and how she ended up in jail.

The prosecutor eventually dropped all the charges and the case was dismissed.

McClure then found a bed for Johnson at a rehabilitation facility about a month later. They then paid Johnson’s bail and provided her with wraparound services to provide assistance until her case ended.

Johnson was released from jail in October 2021, and met her family and loved ones again.

“It was awesome,” Johnson said. “I was crying.”

The problems of pretrial detention

McClure and Faith & Works Collective want to help others in a similar situation. They are working with social justice groups across the country to post bail for Black Americans who otherwise can’t afford it just in time to spend their Mother’s Day with their families in an initiative called #FreeBlackMamas.

Johnson’s story is not unique. Many people may wait months or years in jail before a court appearance, much less resolution of their case.

According to the Prison Policy Initiative, the number of individuals placed in pretrial detention has increased over the last 40 years. Almost 113,000 people were placed in pretrial detention in 1983. By 2019 that number had increased to almost 461,000, a growth of more than 300%.

Alabama tracks that trend. In 1978, slightly more than 1,000 people were placed in pretrial confinement. In 2019, more than 8,500 people were there.

“It has been a problem for a long time,” said Jeremy Cherson, a spokesman for The Bail Project, an organization that assists people with securing bail. “Cash bail is one of the biggest drivers of mass incarceration, and of the size of existing jail populations.”

Cash bail, Cherson said, was originally meant to ensure people facing charges appeared at court hearings.

“It has been distorted into a method by which judges misunderstand how much money a person has, whether they can pay, so they set bail for an amount they think is affordable and it turns out not to be,” he  said. “Or they set amounts that are excessive because they intend to detain that person pretrial. That is a problem because that is not necessarily legal.”

Incarceration exposes those in pretrial detention to a wide range of traumas. Suicide is the leading cause of death in jails and people who are detained pretrial are six times more likely to die by suicide than those who are convicted and sentenced.

About one in 30 people in jail report experiencing sexual assault while incarcerated.

Being in jail also makes it impossible for people to work, which can lead to evictions or, in some cases, the loss of child custody.

In United States v. Salerno, a 1987 case, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the 1984 Bail Reform Act allowed federal courts to detain an arrestee prior to trial if the government could prove that individuals were potentially dangerous to the public. Prosecutors alleged that the defendant was a prominent figure in the La Cosa Nostra crime family and that the act did not violate the Fifth Amendment due process clause.

However, the act only applied to a specific list of serious offenses and that it placed a heavy burden on the government to show that the person in question posed a significant threat.

“That ruling means that you are not supposed to be detaining too many people pretrial,” Cherson said. “It should be limited, in our opinion, to cases that have an imminent or identifiable risk or harm to another person or persons, or where there is a case where the person actually intends to evade prosecution.

It can also be costly to the community. According to the U.S. Federal Courts website, it costs about $92 per day to subject someone to pretrial confinement versus $11 per day for pretrial supervision. The Prison Policy Initiative estimates the cost at roughly $13.6 billion annually to incarcerate the more than 400,000 people who are sentenced to pretrial confinement.

“Pretrial incarceration is going to be a really big drain on resources for communities,” said Allie Preston, a senior policy analyst for criminal justice reform at the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning think tank.

Preston and her colleagues have laid out the problems regarding cash bail and have pushed for reforms to the system. They have cited some statistics that suggest that cash bail harms public safety. According to one study, there is a 6-9% increase in recidivism for even spending one day in jail. Advocates also say the system endangers public safety for those who are arrested, their families as well as their communities.

It also creates a two-tiered system, with the burden falling disproportionately on those with lower incomes, most of whom tend to live in Black and Brown communities. According to a 2018 study, people of color are more likely to be assigned cash bail than their white counterparts.

The amounts set by the courts for bail are also higher for Black and Latino men, 35% and 19% respectively, than they are for whites.

“The median income of people in jail is less than half the median income of people in the general public, and most people who are unable to afford cash bail are from the poorest one-third of society,” a policy brief from the Center for American Progress states.

Mother’s Day initiative

Social justice organizations throughout the country are hoping to address these systemic issues by helping to assist people secure bail and provide them wraparound services.

National Bail Out, an organization that focuses on addressing pretrial detention and mass incarceration, wants to help address this issue.

“We host a Mother’s Day bailout every single year,” said Yabsera Faris, a spokesperson for National Bail Out. “We started in 2017, so this would be our eighth Black Mama’s Bail Out.”

The group is coordinating efforts with other social justice groups throughout the country on the project.  One of those groups is McClure and Faith & Works Collective. It began in 2017 when she saw a post on Facebook advertising the program.

“Immediately, this just overtook me,” McClure said. “What the heck is that? How can I get involved and who is over this? I was just clicking everywhere.”

She then saw Mary Hooks, one of the program’s leaders, who wanted to help address mass incarceration by pulling their money together to free people who are in pretrial incarceration. McClure then called Hooks to ask how she could help.

McClure then joined a call to learn more about the bailout program. She then organized a telethon to help raise the money to begin bailing people out of jail who have not been convicted of a crime.

“What I want to do is have an entertainer come every hour,” McClure said. “That entertainer will go live so we can meet their friends for the reach.”

They had singers, comedians, poets come to the event and perform — all while taking donations to build up the necessary funds to begin helping people secure bail for their release.

“We didn’t even do the whole 12 hours and we had $12,000,” she said. “The donations just kept coming because of some Twitter post. That was our start.”

McClure managed to raise about $20,000 in 2017. They immediately began soliciting jail administrators looking for people who would be good candidates. She posted bail for about five  people that year.

McClure has been helping to pay the bail amounts for a handful of people over the years as money became available, and not necessarily on Mother’s Day alone.

She first obtains a list of people facing charges but not convicted of a crime from  jail administrators and sheriffs. Some  may have already been released. Others are excluded because they have holds in the system for other reasons.

From there, McClure interviews potential candidates. She and her colleagues  ask about the circumstances of their cases; their emotional states as well as the type of support they will have when released.

They also ask logistical questions regarding the potential release, including whether they have a place to stay and a support system to assist them. They also emphasize questions on whether  they will conform to the rules set by the court and appear for their hearings or trials.

That included Johnson in 2021.

For this Mother’s Day, the group plans to assist at least four people with pretrial incarcerations. They have been conducting interviews to incorporate into the assessment.

“It is heartbreaking talking to them,” said Rosa Williams, one of the interviewers. “We were trying to figure out their state of mind. One of them said, ‘I read my devotionals every day. I pray every day and I cry every day.’”

The group received $125,000 from National Bail Out and are looking to help at least four people for Mother’s Day.

“We don’t look at the crime,” Williams said. “We are looking at predetention when you have not been convicted of a crime. We didn’t make the system. The system says, ‘You are innocent until proven guilty.’”

Correction: An earlier version of the story stated the group asks if candidates are remorseful. That is not a question asked.

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