Every day, thousands of people are held in jails across the United States—not because they’ve been convicted of a crime, but because they cannot post bail. The hazards of the bail system hit people of color especially hard, because one in three black men in the U.S. will go to jail at some point, while for whites, that number is one in seventeen, according to Leslie Mac, a member of the Black Lives of Unitarian Universalism Organizing Collective.
Educating Unitarian Universalists about this money bail system, and helping congregations work to abolish it in their communities, was the focus of “Anatomy of a Bailout,” a panel discussion that kicked off the three-part public witness at General Assembly 2018, June 20–24 in Kansas City. This year’s General Assembly public witness was organized by Black Lives of Unitarian Universalism (BLUU).
Black people are twice as likely to be held in jail awaiting trial as white people, said Mac, who led the discussion with four panelists who are black residents of the Kansas City area. Even a short stay in jail can result in a person losing their housing, job, custody of their children, and even their life, Mac said, citing the case of Sandra Bland, who died in a Texas jail in 2015 after being pulled over for failing to signal a lane change.
“We are out to change policy, hearts, and minds” in order to move toward abolishing money bail, she said.
“It is an unjust and unfair system,” said panelist Justice Gatson, a Kansas City-based organizer for the ACLU of Missouri and founder of Reale Justice Network. “Right now, it is a pay for play system: if you have some money you can get out of jail,” but if not, “you are stuck in there and all kinds of things start happening to your life.”
“It’s usually a very minor offense that turns catastrophic and turns people’s lives upside down,” said Ock Blac, a formerly incarcerated man who is now a legal observer for the ACLU in Kansas City, an advocate for victims of domestic violence, and, along with Gatson and others, an organizer of the Mother’s Day bailouts in Kansas City, part of a national movement to raise money to bail women out of jail on Mother’s Day.
While Blac said he was not innocent of all the crimes of which he was accused, he also told of being arrested for driving without a license even though he was a passenger and not the driver in a car that was in a parking lot and not moving. He was carrying $500 in cash at the time, but police would not allow him to access it to pay bond, Blac said, and he was in jail for four months. He lost his job, house, and car because he couldn’t make car payments.
“When I finally did get to court they dropped the charges and let me go,” Blac said. “Frankly, they just beat me down, and this is one story of many.”
Panelist Antonio Ausler, a social justice activist, said he started college in January 2010 without a high school diploma or GED. He had a 4.0 average his first semester and in his second semester he earned his GED and was asked by a professor to represent the college in a state competition for media production. But after being arrested for having marijuana in his system, he sat in the Green County, Missouri, jail for 45 days, during which time his GPA dropped because he missed so much school. He spent $2,000 at the jail commissary for phone cards and snack, “so before you ever get to see a judge or ask for discovery to see if they even have probable cause to take you to jail, you’ve spent” thousands of dollars, he said.
“There’s a stereotype of black people in jail that it’s normal. It’s not,” continued Ausler, who has young children. When parents are locked away or forced to use family funds for bail, “all this money is taken away from our children and they are left with scraps—and that includes our time and our money.” The problem extends to the juvenile justice system, said LJ Brackson, a pastor and small-business owner whose teenaged niece is currently in jail awaiting trial.
In the past two decades, the number of people required to post a cash bond in order to be released after arrest has skyrocketed, while those released on personal recognizance has plummeted, said Mac, who has worked on bail reform for years, including in New Jersey. She said that attempts in that state to change the law were met by strong resistance by bail bondsmen, who stood to lose their livelihoods. Prosecutors use money “as leverage to force folks into guilty pleas,” she said, while people who can afford to post bail often find their cases are dismissed.
“I liken this to payday loans," Mac said. “This is how they function in our criminal justice system—to them, every arrest is a dollar sign.”
“I’d like to see an end to cash bail for all misdemeanor offenses,” said Gatson. “There’s no need to be locking people up for this. We waste money everyday by incarcerating people instead of paying for healthcare or education or something that would be good for them.”
Side with Love and Love Resists have partnered with BLUU for a long-term strategy on ending money bail, including creating a congregational toolkit that will be available soon, Mac said, adding, “The key to strategy is local organization, political education, and developing policy intervention that ensure reforms to money bail.”
Nearly 100 UUs attended the panel discussion and asked Mac and panelists for concrete advice on how their congregations can get involved in ending money bail. “You have to move from being an ally to a co-conspirator,” urged Gatson.
The panelists had this advice:
- Build relationships with local organizations of people of color; don’t expect immediate trust, but build it over time, said Gatson.
- Learn how to take direction from people of color and ask what they need instead of telling them what you think they need. Make sure people of color are centered. “We’re gonna free ourselves, okay?” said Gatson. “We might need your help along the way on this underground railroad, but you ain’t Harriet Tubman.”
- Work with your local ACLU chapter and other local organizations on the issue of bail reform.
- Criminal justice procedures and rules vary from state to state, and even county to county. Know the law in your location.
- Organize court sit-ins to observe what’s happening in your local courts. “Most people are there by themselves, they don’t have any support,” said Ausler. “Get a group together and do some sit-ins and get familiar with how court is supposed to be held.” Court Watch NOLA does excellent work that other states can model, and the ACLU can help with training for sit-ins, Gatson said.
- Talk to your local district attorneys and prosecutors, demanding reform of the system.
- UU congregations can offer space for reform groups to hold policy and other meetings, Gatson urged. Offering free childcare is also very helpful, said Mac.
- Congregations can do an assessment of all the resources they have to offer—for example, someone who is good at helping write resumes for job-hunters—and share this list with local partners. “Be very clear on what you have to offer, and provide a way for them to get in touch with you,” Mac said.
- Understand that “some of us as blacks, we walk around with chips on our shoulder. It has to do with the pressures that are on us,” said Ausler. He urges white people to understand that “just a smile will help with the distance that’s between us.”
- “Don’t pretend you’re colorblind,” advised Brackson. “God made color and all of it is beautiful. Don’t be scared of it, acknowledge it, be real, be yourself.”
- Understand the issues that black people face and support them, Brackson said. “I’m part of a demographic that makes up only 13 percent of the population. Thirteen percent of the vote never wins, so be there” in a relationship of support.
This year’s public witness led by BLUU includes two other prongs: the Care Package Build Project,in which UUs are helping build 1,000 domestic violence care packages for people in the Kansas City area who are dealing with homelessness due to domestic violence, and a hands-on project for people of color and indigenous people at Uzazi Village, which works to decrease black infant mortality and racially based perinatal health inequities through the promotion of culturally congruent care, childbirth education, breastfeeding, and more.