A fundraising campaign organized by Black Lives Matter Tucson has a simple goal: get as many moms as possible out of jail and home to their kids in time for Mother’s Day.
So far, the group has raised more than $1,800 that will be used to bail out mothers and other caregivers who are currently detained at the Pima County jail on nonviolent misdemeanor or felony charges. Women of color who have been unable to afford their bail are encouraged to apply for assistance.
The idea for the fundraiser originated with Southerners on New Ground (SONG,) which is based in Atlanta, and has since spread to cities around the country. It’s inspired in part by the tradition of freed slaves who worked to purchase their relatives’ freedom before the end of the Civil War.
Lola Rainey, a community organizer with Black Lives Matter Tucson, says that she’s hoping the campaign will start a conversation about the need for criminal justice reform in Arizona, and the racial disparities found inside the Pima County jail.
“We don’t have a large black population in Arizona, but even here we manage to get pulled into the system at ridiculously high rates,” she says.
African Americans make up 9.6 percent of the Pima County jail population, which doesn’t seem like a large number at first glance. But only 3.3 percent of the people who live in Pima County are black.
That means they’re nearly three times as likely to end up in jail than demographics would suggest. Native Americans and Latinos, too, are significantly over-represented.
Rainey also points to other statistics showing that, on average, 80 percent of the inmates in the Pima County jail are there on pretrial status, meaning that they have yet to be convicted of a crime.
“We know that people who cannot pay bail do not have a lot of resources,” Rainey says. “They tend to work in jobs where if they miss a day or two, they lose their jobs. If they lose their jobs, they lose their housing. If they lose their housing, they could lose their kids.”
The only way to speed things up is to take a plea deal, which means that defendants end up feeling pressured to admit fault regardless of whether or not they’re actually guilty of the offense they’re being charged with. They then wind up with a criminal record, which can hurt their chances getting jobs and housing in the future. Rainey calls it “the revolving door of injustice.”
Over the past few years, the need for bail reform has been getting more attention. Last year, Pima County announced a multimillion dollar initiative, funded in part by a grant from the MacArthur Foundation, that's aimed at lowering the county jail population by 18 percent. They’ll be experimenting with using automated calls, texts, and e-mails as well as electronic monitoring devices to make sure that defendants still show up to their court hearings.
And, in December, Arizona Supreme Court Chief Justice Scott Bales ordered judges to consider individual defendants’ financial circumstances, in addition to whether they pose a risk to the community or are likely to skip their court date, when deciding whether to require bail.
“The court must not impose a monetary condition that results in unnecessary pretrial incarceration solely because the person is unable to pay the bond,” the order states.
If bail is deemed necessary, it goes on to say, judges should require “the lowest amount necessary to protect other persons or the community from risk posed by the person or to secure the person’s appearance.”
That policy went into effect April 3, but Lieutenant Elsa Navarro of the Pima County Sheriff’s Department says that they haven’t seen a drop in the number of people being held in the jail.
“Obviously, it sounds great, but there’s actually only a very small amount of people that qualify for it,” she says.
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That’s because the new guidelines only apply to people charged with misdemeanors. Most of the inmates who are booked into the Pima County jail on misdemeanor charges also have outstanding felony charges, she says.
“We have very few inmates who are here on just misdemeanor charges. People who are charged with a misdemeanor mostly have a very low bond set, and bail out within 24 hours.”
Lola Rainey says she hopes that gradual shifts in policy will eventually make fundraisers like Mama’s Bailout Day unnecessary.
In the meantime, any money that's left over after Mother’s Day will become part of a revolving bail fund operated by Black Lives Matter Tucson to help low-income defendants get out of jail.