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‘Paying ransom for freedom’: How cash bail is keeping Black mothers stuck in prisons

Many women in jail are Black single mothers who are awaiting trial there only because they can’t afford bail. But groups across the U.S. are posting bonds on their behalf.
Taylor Bates and her baby are healthy and at home after having spent a month in jail because she couldn't afford the $1,000 bail.
Taylor Bates and her baby are healthy and at home after having spent a month in jail because she couldn't afford the $1,000 bail.The Bail Project

In December, JaCari Letchaw’s dog wandered to a neighbor’s house, where it gave birth to puppies. Letchaw says when she tried to retrieve her dog and the puppies, a dispute broke out over who was the rightful owner of the puppies. She walked away, but later that night the Black single mother of five was arrested and eventually sent to Jefferson County’s jail in Birmingham, Alabama. 

Her bail was set at $60,000 for a first-degree robbery charge. It was far more than she could afford; her most recent job had paid only $14 an hour. The monetary difference meant Letchaw would have to wait in jail until her trial started — which could be months away.

“I absolutely had no idea how I was going to pay my bail. There was no way possible. Sitting in there, I even lost my job,” Letchaw told NBC News. 

She also almost lost her house while awaiting trial in jail for two weeks. She was only able to return home after a local social justice organization, Faith and Works, posted her bail on Christmas Day through its fund, In Defense of Black Lives. The group has a relationship with Birmingham’s sheriff’s department, which referred her case. 

Letchaw recalled that when representatives from In Defense of Black Lives first approached her and offered to bail her out, she immediately thought, “Bail who out?” 

“That kind of thing just doesn’t happen very often,” she said. “There was nothing else that I could do, there was absolutely nothing else. And when I hear Faith and Works, they want to come and bail me out, I’m crying. I think I almost went into a panic attack.”

JaCari Letchaw's youngest three kids met her at the Jefferson County Jail in Birmingham, Ala., to welcome her back home the day she was released.
JaCari Letchaw's youngest three kids met her at the Jefferson County Jail in Birmingham, Ala., to welcome her back home the day she was released.Faith and Works

Most women in jails are like Letchaw: Black, single mothers or only incarcerated because they can’t afford to post bail. Of the more than 115,000 women in jails in the U.S., more than 60 percent haven’t been convicted of a crime, but are incarcerated while awaiting trial because they can’t make bail, according to the Sentencing Project.  Forty-four percent of women in jail are Black, and 80 percent of women are single mothers or primary caregivers for their children, according to a 2016 report by Vera Institute of Justice. 

These disparities are among the many reasons why advocates say the cash bail system is long overdue for reform, if not abolishment.

‘Paying ransom for freedom’

Cara McClure founded Faith and Works in 2017 and its bail fund three years later, which is specifically dedicated to bailing out Black mothers. She said the cash bail system criminalizes poverty while rewarding wealth.

“Paying ransom for freedom is something that goes way back, historically,” she said. “Let’s just say, for instance, me and you committed the same crime. You have money, I don’t have money. You get to go home and I have to sit there. And I just don’t understand me sitting there.”

According to the Vera report, poverty is a key reason many people commit crimes. Sixty percent of women in jail didn’t have full-time jobs before being arrested, and the majority of women in jail are there for low-level, nonviolent crimes such as property, drug or public order offenses.

While local, state and federal governments have been slow to overhaul the cash bail system, many organizations across the country, such as Faith and Works, are stepping up to bail people out for low-level, nonviolent offenses.

How a bail fund works

The National Bail Fund Network is an umbrella organization for more than 90 community bail funds, most of which are organized by local or state activists who’ve collected donations from community members or businesses and usually have partnerships with public defenders and sheriff’s departments to get referrals on potential candidates. After receiving a referral, the organizations typically evaluate defendants according to re-entry options, threat to society and other markers before deciding who to bail out. Most states have at least one bail fund.

The organization fronts the money to post bail for defendants. If the case is dismissed, or the defendant returns for trial, the funds are returned and used for the next case. According to the Richmond Community Bail Fund, funds across the U.S. typically see a more than 90 percent rate of return for these funds. 

JaCari Letchaw and her oldest son were arrested following a dispute with a neighbor. Faith and Works posted her $60,000 bail, but her son is still in jail on $90,000 bail.
JaCari Letchaw and her oldest son were arrested following a dispute with a neighbor. Faith and Works posted her $60,000 bail, but her son is still in jail on $90,000 bail.Courtesy JaCari Letchaw

The funds have freed thousands of people from jail in recent years. The Colorado Freedom Fund, for instance, has posted $2.4 million for more than 900 people in the five years it’s been around. The Memphis Community Bail Fund has spent $1 million over five years bailing out more than 400 people. And the Richmond Community Bail Fund spent $1.3 million in the second half of 2020 to bail out almost 400 people.

The Liberty Fund in New York City formed in 2017 and has since bailed out 1,200 people. 

David Long, executive director of the Liberty Fund, said that cash bail no longer operates the way it was designed. Cash bail was originally intended to ensure a defendant showed up to court, he said, but what’s developed instead is a system that disproportionately punishes the poor.

Letchaw’s oldest son, who was with her during the neighborhood dispute, was also arrested and is currently in jail because the family can't afford to post his $90,000 bail.

Disproportionate impact on Black women

The Bail Project, a national fund, has posted bonds for more than 20,000 people across the U.S. Seventy-six percent were women, and of that group, 1 in 3 were Black mothers.

One of those bailouts was Taylor Bates, a Black single mother who was five months pregnant when she was arrested in Atlanta last June following a dispute with a family member. She couldn’t make her $1,000 bail, so she stayed in DeKalb County’s jail for almost a month until the Bail Project posted it on her behalf. Without that financial support, she would have delivered her baby in jail and would likely still be there, since her case is ongoing.

Twyla Carter, the organization’s national director of legal and policy, said that “jail was a horrific experience” for Bates.

“Because of the pandemic, she was kept in isolation 23 hours a day. She had experienced a miscarriage before and was worried she would lose this baby, too. Fortunately, we were able to assist and her baby was born healthy. Her dream is to open her own restaurant one day.”

DeKalb County jail officials declined NBC News’ requests for comment.

Carter said Black mothers are particularly vulnerable to the cash bail system.

“The disproportionate impact on Black women in particular and Black mothers is great because their inability to post a cash bond is the result of a wide range of societal issues and barriers that come into play,” she said. “Black women, in particular, carrying on the brunt of this humanitarian crisis that we’re seeing, especially when you think in terms of Black women having to afford their own bail amount, which is typically set at a higher rate when they are charged with the same offenses as white women or other women, and they’re less likely to be able to afford it.”

Meanwhile, Letchaw’s case is still ongoing. 

“If I had not been blessed with Faith and Works, I would probably still be sitting in there,” she said. “The time there was very horrible. It is just like modern day slavery. They keep you in a cage. They treat you like animals.”

Jefferson County Jail officials declined  NBC News’ requests for comment.

Attempts at reform

While locally organized bail funds have been popping up across the country, government-sponsored ones are less common. Long said they’re scarce because there isn’t a widespread model that federal and state governments can follow as a first step. New York is one of few states with charitable bail funds written into law. One of them is the Liberty Fund.

Other states and cities have reformed their cash bail systems. 

In 2017, New Jersey phased out the use of cash bail and instead performs risk assessments to determine pretrial releases. In the same year, Kentucky started releasing low-risk defendants without having them see a judge and requiring pretrial service agencies to make release recommendations within 24 hours of arrests. In 2020, San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin said his office would no longer ask for cash bail. California also eliminated cash bail for some defendants who can’t afford it. And a handful of cities and states, including Nebraska, Illinois, Montana, Connecticut, Philadelphia, New Orleans and Atlanta, introduced reform legislation in 2020.

But there are challenges to reforming cash bail. At the beginning of 2020, New York’s state Legislature passed a bill that effectively ended cash bail for most misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies, but the law was rolled back that April. The New York Police Department released data shortly after the law went into effect that showed an increase in crime, saying it was the result of softer bail rules. Supporters of cash bail used the disputed data to pressure New Yorkers into cornering elected officials to overturn the law, according to the Marshall Project.

Long said overhauling the cash bail system is politically difficult for this reason: progress is usually interrupted any time there’s an uptick in crime. Its supporters are worried about appearing soft on crime after any potential reform, and there’s concern about releasing potentially dangerous people back into communities.

Another difficulty in reform is that advocates want it done right. Californians voted against replacing their cash bail system with risk assessments in a 2020 ballot measure. Opponents of the measure include notable civil rights organizations Color of Change and Human Rights Watch. Voting no was "a chance to advance real pretrial reform, instead of replacing the money bail system with a worse system of biased risk assessments and unlimited judicial power," Justice LA, an umbrella organization for more than 20 organizations, said in a joint statement.

At the federal level, cash bail reform has gone largely untouched. Both President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris said they support ending cash bail, but it hasn’t been prioritized since they took office. 

One reason federal reform has been difficult, Long said, is that what’s classified as a crime isn’t standardized across states. “You can look at our country and there’s 50 different systems that are in place in 50 different states, and they’re all at different stages,” he said.

Carter, of the Bail Project, said the Biden administration should make it more of a priority. 

“The use of cash bail is a fundamental issue right now in our civil rights and racial justice movement,” she said. “We have a humanitarian crisis happening with the use of cash bail.”

Carter said that the federal government should reward states that phase out the cash bail system and that now is the time, while Democrats still control the legislative and executive branches. 

Finally out of jail, Bates is enjoying being a new mother at home with her baby, while Letchaw spends her time with her kids. They both have made their court dates, in the hopes that their cases will close soon.

The process can be time-consuming and emotionally exhausting, Letchaw said, but she’s just grateful that she was bailed out.

“Without God, I don’t know where I would be right now — would be locked up, because it was just God to have Faith and Works.”