Black moms, cash bail and 'criminalized poverty': Talking bail fund work with Women With a Vision_lowres

Could you miss work for a month with no notice?

What about four months?

What would happen to your kids if you were arrested and abruptly didn't come home? Who would keep their doctors' appointments, or remember to enroll them in school?

Who would pay the rent on the apartment where you live, or file up-to-date paperwork for the housing or food assistance you need — assistance you lose could if you miss documentation deadlines?

One month and four months, respectively, are the amounts of time people who can't afford to pay bail typically sit in jail after arrests on misdemeanor and felony charges, according to the Data Center. With Black Mama's Bail Out — a bail fund project that is part of Southerners on New Ground's (SONG's) national campaign of the same name — organizers including New Orleans women's advocates Women With a Vision (WWAV) hope to highlight the "collateral consequences" of an incarceration system that separates women from their families for weeks or months at a time before they've been convicted of a crime, because they can't get together the cash to pay bail.

"If someone hasn't even been found guilty yet, and they're being locked up because of an inability to pay ... part of the doing of this project is trying to start a conversation about what that entire institution of bail looks like," WWAV organizer Mwende Katwiwa says, "and what it means to criminalize poverty."

[jump] This is the second year WWAV has focused on bail fund projects, which pay bail for people who have been arrested who aren't able to afford bail on their own. The group worked with SONG to bail out 10 people during a similar campaign last August.

With the kickoff of the local version of Black Mama's Bail Out this Mother's Day, WWAV joins local SONG members for an expanded group of eight to 10 organizers, who will initiate a new round of bailouts for black women ("expansively defined," meaning trans women also are eligible) who are mothers or caregivers in some way.

"Mothering is not something that is confined to specific genders or bodies," Katwiwa says. "Somebody that we bail out could by somebody's auntie, could never have birthed a child in their life. But if they're a caretaker or someone who is considered a mother ... then that falls under our criteria."

Mothers are the central focus of this project because of the supportive role they play in black communities — which Katwiwa says often are fragmented by poverty and overpolicing — and because of the disruptive effect their absence has on families.

Nationally, almost 80 percent of women who are incarcerated are mothers. Program director Christine Lobre says many women currently in New Orleans jails are single mothers, part of the nearly half of local households that are female-led.

What this means is that jobs, apartments and child custody can be lost while women sit in jail on suspicion of even nonviolent or trivial crimes — such as public trespassing — because they can't come up with an amount of money that's often as small as a few hundred dollars. Organizers hope to limit some of these effects for individuals, while bringing home women who often serve as essential members of their communities.

"There's a narrative around people who are incarcerated and their families not being caring for them, or supportive, and that's why they ended up in this place," Katwiwa says. "[But] their communities are standing up and saying hey, no, actually we want these people to remain [at home] if there's a safe and healthy way for them to do that."

This project also calls attention to the incentive people who can't afford bail have to plead guilty to crimes they didn't commit, because it's a way to secure one's release. Lobre says it's common for people in New Orleans jails to make this calculation, even when it means a criminal record and an immediate future navigating the court system (for fines, fees and probation requirements) — a situation that can bring on spiraling legal trouble if those obligations aren't met.

"[There's] the realization of, okay, you can take this to court and roll the dice ... or you can go ahead and take this plea, and go home 'on paper,'" Lobre says. "When given the opportunity to leave the cage and go back to your home and community, you may not have that forethought."

For this year's Black Mama's Bail Out project, organizers will work with the Orleans Public Defender's office to identify black women or femme-identified people with smaller bail amounts (usually less than $5,000) who play a mothering role. The project continues after the bailouts — organizers also will provide assistance navigating cases, whether that be rides to future court dates, help paying fines and fees or use of WWAV's existing contacts within the criminal justice system.

These reintegration assistance programs, for which the group is currently accepting donations, are why there's no firm cap on the number of women local organizers intend to serve with this round of bailouts. Rather, it's more about the number of people who can comfortably be supported in the following months.

"It's not about getting someone out for that moment. It's about working along with them to remove whatever barriers that we can to keep folks out," Lobre says.

"We're not setting them up to be rearrested," Katwiwa adds. "What are the personal, structural, everyday barriers that keep people [from meeting their obligations?] If going to court is just a bus ride away, or you're going to be locked up, what would make someone actually miss that court date?"

Ultimately, organizers hope this project will serve as a teaching tool and catalyst for New Orleanians to consider cash bail and the way it doubly penalizes communities of color, whose members are both more likely to be arrested and incarcerated and less likely to have the resources to make bail.

It's past time, Katwiwa says, to consider more equitable alternatives.

"The criminal justice system, people are just like 'It's so big ... it's so entrenched — there's no way to change it. We can't imagine anything other than cash bail,'" she says. "It's like, well, let's take a minute to do that."

This story has been updated to more clearly delineate the role of SONG in this project.