Ahead of Mother's Day, Bail Reform Groups Get Moms Out of Jail

Black Lives Matter activists and members of Essie Justice Group gathered in front of Alameda County Superior Court for National Mama's Bail Out Day.  (Sukey Lewis/KQED)

Three moms in Alameda County will be spending Mother’s Day at home with their kids instead of locked up in jail or immigration detention. They are among 30 moms being bailed out nationwide by social and racial justice groups looking to reform the bail system.

Moms were being bailed out in Oakland, Los Angeles, Memphis, Atlanta, Minneapolis, New York, Chicago and a number of other cities across the country as part of National Mama’s Bail Out Day.

“Women lose custody of their children because they cannot make bail,” said Cheryl Diston, a member of the Essie Justice Group in Oakland that was participating in the bailout day. "Families are torn apart because they cannot make bail. It isn’t right. It’s not right.”

About two dozen people gathered on the steps of Alameda County Superior Court in Oakland on Thursday to talk about the financial and emotional cost of bail that often falls on African-American mothers.

Cheryl Diston, 52, has a son in jail waiting trial. She says money bail is immoral.
Cheryl Diston, 52, spoke of the humiliation of being in jail when she was a young mother and the pain of being separated from her kids. She says money bail is immoral. (Sukey Lewis/KQED)

Black women are twice as likely as white women to end up in jails, and nearly 80 percent of women in jails nationwide are mothers, according to advocacy groups. Since 1980, the number of incarcerated women has grown by 700 percent, the groups said.

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Le’Char Toki, of the Essie Justice Group, spoke about being a kid and remembering seeing a bail bonds commercial on TV. 

“It was of a black child needing his mother to bail him out,” she said. “The message I heard that day was: A woman, a black woman, will do whatever it takes to bring her loved one home. The bail bonds industry was taking advantage of it with [sic] their own profit.”

Toki said that when her little brother was arrested some time after that, she saw her mom become the same woman she’d seen on that commercial.

“Less than an hour [later], the bail bondsman became the co-owner of everything my family worked hard for,” she said. “When my husband was arrested, I was back in the same bail bond shop.”

Speakers also told their own stories of incarceration. More than 60 percent of the people in jail are there waiting for trial, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Many of them sit behind bars because they can’t afford to pay bail. Criminal justice reform advocates say money alone shouldn’t determine a person’s freedom.

The momentum to reform bail is growing in Oakland and across the country.

California legislators are considering two bills -- AB 42 and SB 10 -- that would move the state away from a money-based bail system toward a model that assesses an individual’s risk to society.

A representative from Assemblyman Rob Bonta's office attended National Mama's Bail Out Day to talk about AB42, which would overhaul California's bail system.
A representative from Assemblyman Rob Bonta's office attended National Mama's Bail Out Day to talk about AB 42, which would overhaul California's bail system. (Sukey Lewis/KQED)

Bail agents are critical, saying that this legislation will end up costing taxpayers and will put the public at risk. They have said that money bail works because it provides a financial incentive for people to show up to court.

A federal judge in Houston, Texas, recently found that holding people in jail simply because they are unable to pay bail is unconstitutional because it violates the equal protection clause of the U.S. Constitution. Another constitutional challenge to money bail is also working its way through federal court here in California.

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