A Fight to Free Oakland Mamas for Mother’s Day — and End California’s Unfair Bail System
“Miss M.” was stuck waiting in an Alameda County jail cell for two months for a crime she said she didn’t commit. A judge ruled that she could await trail at home with her family — but only if she paid the court $50,000 in bail. Even the 10 percent fee of $5,000, which she would have to pay to have the cost covered by a bail bondsmen, was too much for her. Miss M. was facing the reality of having to spend Mother’s Day away from her 12-year-old daughter, simply because she couldn’t afford to pay for the freedom she had been granted.
Hers is one of the many stories being shared this week as part of the National Black Mamas Bailout Campaign to highlight the unfairness of bail practices and the devastating effects they have on communities — especially communities of color, which are disproportionately affected by the criminal justice system.
Those detained often lose their jobs, and families must bear the emotional and financial burden of imprisonment, even if the person ends up being acquitted. These issues hit Black and Brown communities hardest. According to the ACLU, judges set bail for Black and Brown people, who are usually less able to afford bail, more often and at higher rates than whites. As a result, people of color are two times more likely to be detained while awaiting trial.
Increased jail time can also affect the outcome of a person’s trial. Statistics show that, compared to those who are released pretrial, jailed people are more likely to be convicted, get harsher sentences, and have higher rates of recidivism.
According to a report from the Public Policy Institute of California, the median bail amount in California is $50,000 — more than five times higher than other states across the country. Higher bail rates mean more people stay locked up in jails, and a majority of the people in California jails are just waiting trial. In Alameda County, roughly 84 percent of inmates have yet to be convicted of a crime.
Bail is intended to act as leverage, to ensure an accused person will show up for court, but the United States is only one of two countries that relies on the practice. And there’s little evidence that it actually works. California has one of the highest rates of pretrial detention but does not have higher rates of court appearances. The ACLU notes that in Kentucky, where 70 percent of people are released prior to their trial, 90 percent make every one of their court dates and 92 percent are not re-arrested during that time of release. Still, America spends more than $22 billion each year to keep non-convicted people locked in jails.
That’s why advocacy organizations from around the country have come together to raise both funds and awareness on bail reform, and help more mothers come home for Mother’s Day. Since last May when the first campaign was launched, 200 women have been freed in cities around the country.
Three from the Bay Area were welcomed home by Essie Justice Group, an Oakland-based advocacy organization whose membership is filled with women with their own stories and experiences with locked-up loved ones.
This year, Essie Sisters continued the work locally to free more Black mothers, and champion bail reform efforts in California that will put limits on unfair practices for good. “One in four women have a family member who is incarcerated. For Black women, nearly one in two of us has a family member who is incarcerated,” said founder and executive director Gina Clayton. “When women are locked up it just reverberates throughout families and through communities.”
Members spent the last week at Santa Rita Jail, sitting in on hearings, offering support, and meeting with women like Miss M., who hadn’t had a single visitor since she was booked on March 10. As she shared her story with them, Essie Sisters pressed their hands against the glass that separated Miss M. from the outside. “They all shared this moment,” Clayton said. “That’s when Ms. Anita, one of our member leaders, said to her, ‘I promise we are going to get you out.’”
On Thursday, during a press conference held jointly with Young Women’s Freedom Center, TGI Justice Project, and the Alameda County Public Defender’s Office, Essie members shared their own stories as they called for a change to the system.
“My bail story personally was a nightmare,” Cheryl Diston told the crowd that gathered on the steps of Alameda County’s René C. Davidson Courthouse in Oakland. “Eighty percent of women in jail are mothers, and I was one of them.”
Unable to bail out, she spent close to a year behind bars waiting for trial. She won her case and was released, but in that time her grandmother passed away and a nephew was killed. She also missed her son’s wedding. “Because I couldn’t bail out I lost contact with my children for months — and then I lost hope.”
That’s why, she said, she is working with Essie Sisters to help others facing similar circumstances. “If I could have bailed out and if somebody had given me a chance, my life could be totally different,” she said. “I am here today in honor of all Black mothers like me who cannot make their bail. I am here today to let you know how devastating the impacts of the bail system are. Women lose custody of their children while they can’t bail out. Families are torn apart because they can’t bail out. It isn’t right and it shouldn’t be based on who can’t afford it.”
Legislation introduced by Sen. Bob Hertzberg (D-Van Nuys) last year would do away with California’s bail system. It’s currently in the assembly, and advocates are hopeful there’s enough momentum for meaningful reform to take place in the near future.
Clayton emphasized that, along with urging legislators to support the move, residents should look locally at their DAs and judges who are on the frontlines of implementing policies.
Alameda County DA Nancy O’Malley has voiced support for bail reform, but her challenger, criminal rights attorney Pamela Price, has come out strongly on the issue and was in attendance at the rally.
Advocates are also hoping to encourage private corporations to divest from the for-profit bail industry, which has played a role in advancing the bail system. In a big win for reform efforts, Google and Facebook announced last week that they would no longer carry bail ads on their platforms.
While continuing to push for long-term reforms, organizations continue collecting funds to free as many women as possible in the coming weeks. And, in Oakland, Essie Sisters will spend this weekend celebrating Mother’s Day with one more mom who is home with her family.
The day after meeting Miss M., they returned with a $50,000 check in hand to fulfill their promise. They waited for nearly 13 hours for the jail to release her. But, when she finally walked out, she was greeted with hugs from 15 women.
“Just think what it’s like to have perfect strangers come to be with you during a difficult and certainly a very dark moment,” Clayton said.
“It was really beautiful. The way in which community — both from people who are donating to the bailouts, to people who are promoting or writing about it, to people who are showing up in courts — these extensions of love and hope, that I believe is actually the way that we set people up for success,” she added.
“A cage is not … how you care for somebody. But community is — community is how you care.”
East Bay Express