The Bill of Rights, or the first 10 amendments to the U.S. Constitution, enshrines people’s freedoms in an effort to protect the ideals for all U.S. citizens. At the time, it meant white, land-owning males, but the anti-Federalists then feared the power of an overly strong federal government. North Carolina held out on ratifying the U.S. Constitution because of the anti-Federalist voices in our state.
Over 200 years later, we continue to argue about the interpretation of the U.S. Constitution as we limp toward including every citizen in its protections. We have, for example, admitted African-Americans are indeed people instead of property. Women, too, have more rights, though, technically we still are fighting for NC to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment.
The First Amendment (Freedom of Speech, Religion, the Press and Peaceable Assembly) and The Second Amendment (gun ownership and the militia) tend to attract a lot of attention. But others are important, too. For example, the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution addresses bail and cruel and unusual punishment, and often gets glossed over—but at the people’s peril. Re: “Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.”
“Cruel and unusual punishment” is a relative term, as “branding” and “maiming” don’t figure heavily into judicial sentences in the early 2000s. But many of the arguments around the death penalty focus on the Eighth Amendment.
Yet, how does one determine what excessive bail is? In the United States, many people are able to secure their release from jail prior to their trial by posting a bond (a financial deposit with the court) which ensures they will appear at the time of their trial. But does a dollar have the same value to all people?
To Michael Cohen, his $500,000 bond was money he raised to secure his pre-trial release. For many the conversation would begin with: “Do you own your house? What collateral can you put up?” If you have no significant assets, the conversation ends there.
I find it very difficult to believe a single parent, working third shift, sees the value of a dollar the same way Michael Cohen does. Also, he or she likely couldn’t raise that kind of money when needed.
The inequities around the cash bail system in the United States are becoming part of our conversation about larger issues of using the penal system to exploit and rend the African-American community in the United States. In 2018 CNN reported New Jersey and Alaska were ending cash bail (with a few exceptions), and California was ending cash bail effective October 2019.
A few years ago, one of my friends mentioned our mutual friend, Tony, started every morning by looking at StarNews mugshots. When I asked why, the conversation turned toward how you never know who needs to get bailed out. Now, Tony is a man with a big heart and small pocketbook, and when I pointed it out, the answer was: “Yes, but he could get together the 10 people who could pool enough money to get someone out.”
In essence, it is what a grassroots effort is trying to do across the country right now: pool enough money to get out people accused of non-violent offenses, who are sitting in jail ahead of their trials because they can’t afford their bail. In our area, there is a push to get women and caregivers out of jail and home for Mother’s Day: “The Black Mama Bail Out.” Several organizations are pooling resources and fundraising efforts are banding together and include: Southerners On New Ground, New Hanover County NAACP, LINC, Inc., the ACLU of NC, Working Films, UU Social Justice Committee, the SENC Central Labor Council, Wilmington Pride, Alliance for Economic Justice, Frank Harr Foundation, and Women Organizing Wilmington.
Two participants, Janyce Jones and Roberta Penn, took time to answer encore’s questions about their efforts.
encore (e): How did you learn about The Black Mama Bail Out?
Roberta Penn (RP): I have been involved with Southerners on New Ground (SONG) for several years and joined in on some of their Zoom meetings during the past two years of Black Mama’s Bail Out actions.
Janyce Jones (JJ): I first learned about the national bail-out campaign through social media and email lists. But through my friend Roberta Penn, I got more information particularly about the Wilmington bail out.
e: Why did you decide to get involved?
JJ: Once I learned poor people and people of color are sitting in cages just because they don’t have the bail money, I was first sad, then angry, and wanted to to help. Getting black mothers and caregivers out so they can spend Mother’s Day with their families is important to me.
RP: I became involved because SONG is a multiracial LGBTQ organization centered on the liberation for all of us, rather than accommodation of some of us, to broken systems that only support the privileged. I feel at home in SONG because it is a regional Southern organization focused on transforming the South. It’s an uplifting experience to be part of SONG’s actions and initiatives because their organizing is visionary and their dedication arises from love of community.
e: How are you raising money? How can the community contribute?
JJ: We are raising money through community-direct appeals, fundraising events, and via social media.
RP: Contributions are either in cash to the Campaign to End Cash Bail or through the SONG website donation page (bit.ly/freeblackmamasfund-19), which collects funds for bail outs in all participating cities (Atlanta, Durham, Greensboro, Asheville, Nashville, Richmond, Birmingham, Knoxville, and Wilmington). To ensure donations, which are tax deductible, go to the Wilmington bail out, click the drop down menu on the SONG donation page and choose “Wilmington, NC.”
e: How many women are you hoping to bail out? How do you identify which women to bail out?
RP: We don’t have a set number of black mamas and caretakers we hope to bail out. It depends on how much money we have; we plan to use cash bail rather than bail bondsmen because they are part of the exploitative bail-bond system. We want to bail out women and caretakers whose needs can be met. We have a social service crew, led by Michelle Gunn of LINC, Inc, and they’re interviewing women in cages to assess needs. If we can give the women the support they need, we will try to bail them out.
e: Why is this issue important to our community?
JJ: We want to reunite black mamas, who are members of our community, with their families and community so they can continue to do what sustains them, like being with family and children, keeping their jobs. The entire community benefits. They are sitting in jails but have not been tried, and this does not benefit us as a community.
RP: The money bail system perpetuates racial bias within the criminal legal system and only benefits the for-profit bail bonds industry and insurance companies that underwrite it. It is a system that preys on marginalized communities, and only the U.S. and the Philippines have a money bail system.
In New Hanover County a black person is eight times more likely to wind up in jail than a white one. The population in our jail is about 50 percent black, even though 80 percent of the population is white.
On a larger scale the public should consider the cost of putting people in cages. It costs $80 a day to keep someone in jail but only about $7 a day to support them in the community.
e: Is this going to become a recurring event?
RP: The Campaign to End Cash Bail will continue because the goal is to end pretrial detention and it will take changes in hearts, minds and public policies. The Black Mama’s Bail Out is an action to focus attention on the money bail system’s inequalities and the waste of taxpayer money that could be used to support communities.
Bailing out people who are in jail not because they’ve been convicted of a crime but because they have no access to bond money will continue through SONG, but the Campaign to End Cash Bail has no concrete plan for a local follow-up bail-out action at this time.
JJ: SONG Has been doing this for the past three years, and I hope to take this action until we no longer need to.