End the punitive cash bail system

Today is Mother’s Day in the US, one of the many days to remember certain people in our lives that the greeting card and other merchandizing industries have seized upon to guilt-trip people into spending money on gifts and cards to avoid feeling guilty that their mothers will think that they do not care about them. Being the curmudgeon that I am, I impressed upon my children when they were young age that I thought celebrating things like Father’s Day (and even my birthday) was nonsense and that I would be disappointed if they fell for the marketing pressure and bought me cards and stuff on those days and that I would be pleased if they ignored them altogether. Despite my urgings, they still call me on Father’s Day and my birthday but they know better than to buy me anything.

But Mother’s Day can be used for good marketing purposes and a new one is to use it to raise money to get enough cash bail to release mothers from prison on Mother’s Day.

It’s Mother’s Day this weekend, and racial justice groups around the country are bailing black women out of jail so they can spend the holiday with their families. For the second year in a row, “Black Mama’s Bail Out Day” is raising money to bail out as many black women from jail as possible. The effort is taking place in dozens of cities to call attention to the injustice of cash bail.

Amy Goodman interviewed Mary Hooks, co-director of Southerners on New Ground (SONG), with the Movement for Black Lives and an organizer of National Black Mama’s Bail Out Day, and Hooks had this to say.

“Yeah, so, essentially, when someone is arrested, and if you are not killed by the police, the other lynching begins in the courtroom. And when someone goes before a judge, oftentimes they’re levied a bail, that never considers their income, never considers if they are eligible to pay or not. And we believe that wealth-based detention is not a legitimate means of even qualifying as to whether or not someone’s going to come back to court or not. And so, we oftentimes see primarily poor and black people who languish in cages because they can’t afford their bail.

And so many of the women that we’ve bailed out, we’re seeing ridiculous stories. There was someone that we met who was picked up on an old charge from 10 years ago, someone who had been sitting since March, with two children at home, and had lost their job, had lost their housing, for ridiculous violations—real talk, that doesn’t—that shouldn’t even be litigated by the state. And so, yeah, that is what we’re trying to highlight.”

But it is not just about getting people out on bail. The movement is taking aim at the cash bail system that is the first step in the coercive system that has not only made the legal system into a profit center for jurisdictions by squeezing money out of poor people, it also enables prosecutors to coerce guilty plea deals from women who are desperate to get out of prison and be back with their children. The ACLU has put out a statement about this a practice with powerful videos highlighting this abuse. Here is one such story about Lavette Mayes.

Lavette Mayes is a single mother. She was arrested after a fight with her mother-in-law. To stay out of jail before her court date, she was asked to pay a cash bail she could not afford. For lack of money, she was locked up for 14 months while waiting for her court date. In a country that says “innocent until proven guilty,” cash bail renders a punishment before someone even gets a trial.

Because she couldn’t afford a pre-trial bond, Lavette lost her small business and was separated from her children. “My children were just as incarcerated as I was with me being gone,” she says.

Lavette’s experience isn’t rare. On any given day, hundreds of thousands of people are locked up in jails even though they have not been convicted of a crime, and many of them are in jail simply because they cannot afford cash bail. As a result, they lose their jobs, homes, and families, regardless of guilt, innocence, or legality of the arrest. Lavette’s ordeal also speaks to another worrisome trend. Women are the fastest growing incarcerated population, with 219,000 women now in prisons and jails in the United States.

The cash bail system was originally designed to ensure that people return to court as their case progresses, but it has morphed into a for-profit system of wealth-based incarceration.

Mayes was first placed in jail for three days in just her nightclothes, then brought up before a magistrate who, in just 30 seconds, set her bail at $250,0000 of which $25,000 had to be paid in cash. Of course she did not have the money so she spent 14 months in jail awaiting trial until she eventually accepted a plea deal. This business of setting bail in amounts that the judge knows people cannot pay is an abuse of a system designed to make sure people turned up for their court date and did not flee. There is no way that poor people like Mayes, with no prior record and small children to look after, is a flight risk

You can read Mayes’s full story here.

Thirty seconds. That’s how long it took for a Cook County judge to eyeball the silenced woman standing before him and set the price of her freedom. Thirty seconds.

It was early March and 45-year-old Lavette Mayes had just spent three days in a Chicago lock-up. She was ill-prepared for cell block weather, and she froze those first couple of days in a loose hospital gown pulled tight over her own thin nightgown, a pair of pants, and old house shoes. After begging the guards, they allowed her sister to bring a coat, buttons cut-off, and white K-Swiss gym shoes. Even so, Mayes, who grew up on the South Side, says, “I was in no kind of condition to stand in front of a judge, not even with my face washed.”

That day, Mayes saw dozens of women filing through bond court. “The [court-appointed] attorney that was next to me, he was talking so extremely fast, it sounded like you at auction,” she says. “The judge hit the gavel, and I’m like, ‘What did they say?’ It went so fast.” Thirty seconds. Mayes’ freedom was gone. “I just went numb, like, ‘Where would I even get that kind of money from?’”

Here is a brief video.

Does anyone think that a well-to-do person would be treated this way?

The way that the American ‘justice’ system treats the poor and otherwise marginalized groups is an absolute disgrace. Alan Price’s song from the film O Lucky Man captures the nature of the wealth-based legal system well. Although that film was set in the UK, it applies with much greater force here.


  1. Crip Dyke, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden says

    Thank you for this, Mano. It’s a problem that deserves far more attention than it’s getting

  2. jrkrideau says

    We seem to have a bit of the same problem, to the point that the Attorney General in Ontario apparently has released a new bail policy to Crown prosecutors.

    Crown prosecutors will have to recommend the least restrictive form of release for people accused of crimes and weigh the unique circumstances of Indigenous people under a sweeping new bail policy issued by the province Monday.


    From a cynical viewpoint, this would empty out a lot of detention centre cells, reducing overcrowding and potentially saving money.

    Can anyone explain to me how throwing someone in jail because they cannot make bail makes someone money in the USA.
    All I can imagine at the moment adds extra costs on the system.

  3. says

    I’ve been through the bail system, it’s a fucking nightmare. Those who run bail bond business clean the fuck up, but everyone else pays. They feed off desperation, and a lot of people end up losing things, like their house, because they mortgage it to fund bail. You also have to suck up like crazy to the bail bondsperson, else they’ll refuse you, or start conveniently “losing” paperwork and so on. You don’t even want to know about the lechery in that business, either.

  4. jrkrideau says

    I tried googling for “Bail Bondsmen in Canada” and hit a Quora answer that said, “Bail bonds are completely illegal in Canada.” Sounds likely to me since I had never heard of them here--and through one of my jobs I knew an awful lot of petty criminals.

    I, then, noticed another link “The Best 10 Bail Bondsmen in Ontario, CA”. Weird until I realized that the CA in this case meant California.

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