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What Bail Does Is Coerce Guilty Pleas

CounterSpin interview with Arissa Hall on Mama’s Bailout Day.

Janine Jackson: National Mama’s Bailout Day aimed, successfully, to get dozens of incarcerated black women home for Mother’s Day. The action could be supported with data: Black women are 44 percent of the US jail population, 80 percent of women in jail have young children, 82 percent are in custody for nonviolent offenses, and many are not convicted of anything at all. Or we could ask philosophically: Given that our society predicates a great deal on the idea of law as an equalizer, is it acceptable that anyone is jailed for an inability to pay a cash amount?

Well, Mama’s Bailout Day was about data and ideas, but first and foremost, it was about mamas. Our next guest was one of the organizers behind it. Arissa Hall is project manager at the National Bail Fund Network, which is housed at Brooklyn Community Bail Fund. She joins us now by phone from Brooklyn. Welcome to CounterSpin, Arissa Hall.

Arissa Hall: Thank you for having me.

One of the things I appreciate about this action, about Mama’s Bailout Day, is that it’s lateral. It’s about a system, the bail system, but it’s not an action that simply says, hey, look at this bad system. It’s person to person. What can you tell us about how Mama’s Bailout Day came to happen?

It came to happen at a convening that about 25 people attended, hosted by the Movement for Black Lives Policy Table, and also Color of Change, in Atlanta at the end of January. And this convening was specifically about bail. We were in a brainstorming session, and folks were just bringing up ideas — interventions in the bail system, or how we can highlight that bail system. Mary Hooks, who is the co-director of SONG, Southerners On New Ground, offered up the idea of a national bailout, which then was accepted by the larger group, and specified as, we should do it around Mother’s Day, and highlight how we celebrate mothers, but how all mothers are not celebrated, specifically marginalized black moms who find themselves detained.

Brandon Patterson at Mother Jones quoted Mary Hooks from SONG saying, “Black people have a tradition of using our collective resources to buy each other’s freedom.” And she also said, “The sooner we can get folks out, the ability for them to mitigate their cases increases and the less collateral damage they are likely to incur.” And again, that point, that this action looked at the bail system from a communal perspective — what’s the impact on communities — I think that’s one of the other interesting things about it.

Yeah. I work at National Bail Fund Network. Bail funds have always been a community thing, and whether that has been at the church, where folks have collected their resources to bail out a member of the congregation, or someone kin to someone at the congregation, it always has been communal and it always has been basically a form of resistance, resisting the system which imposes these fines on us for our freedom. Unfortunately, as Mary says, black folks are very familiar with that sort of communal gathering, and communal gathering of resources for liberation, as it goes back to during slavery, when black folks also had to buy their freedom. So this is a long tradition of purchasing our freedom, and we’ve seen this evolve. And here we are for Mama’s Bailout Day…recognizing this has always happened — at smaller scales, but definitely happened before.

Right. Well, the harm is communal and the help is communal, in this case.


But it also has a special relevance with bail. I read an op-ed in the Washington Post by a law professor named Jocelyn Simonson, who was saying that the modern conception of setting bail is that a judge is weighing the interests of an individual defendant against those of a larger community. And so when the judge sets bail, they’re saying they’re doing it on behalf of the community. And so bail funds like you work with are saying: not in our name.

Right. And that’s the fallacy, one of the many fallacies of bail. A lot of judges and magistrates and bail commissioners say things such as, these people pose a risk to the community. And the way that they measure this risk is usually from risk assessment tools, which ask these very standardized questions that we’ve seen to be very biased, and based on the score that you get, bail will be set. So that’s how the system is basically determining who’s a risk to our community, and the community has no say-so in that. So yes, we are saying, not in our name.

People are so used to “that’s just the way it goes,” that a lot of us haven’t just sat down — even people that are mostly impacted by the bail system — haven’t had an opportunity to just sit down and reflect on, just why does this system exist, and what’s the point of this system?


I remember talking to a friend about bail before we went down to Atlanta, and I was telling him, bail is supposed to just be a guarantee. You know, the reason that bail is set up is so it’s the guarantee that you come back to court. And he was like, I had no idea. That’s the theory behind bail, is that, hey, if Arissa gets arrested, if she pays $100 to the court, because she wants her money back (because bail is supposed to resolve once the case is resolved), she’ll come back. And what we know is that that’s not true, because when we pay bail through bail funds, these folks have no financial risk, as they haven’t put up their own money, and they do come back to court.

The main barriers to coming back to court are usually that there’s no interest in the defendant, in their lives; so you can have a doctor’s appointment or your mother’s birthday or you have to work, and they don’t care about that when they set court dates, right? Or they don’t care about if $3 or $2.75 to get to court is a financial barrier, and you have children and…. So it’s just real-life factors that create barriers for you to go back to court, but it’s not the money of bail that creates barriers. And what bail does is it coerces guilty pleas, and it makes you…. Yeah, you don’t fight. In 90 percent [of cases] in our country, people plead guilty, instead of actually having to go to court and fight for trial.

And another thing that I find is, if you are in jail — and again, you are supposed to be innocent, right, innocent until proven guilty — these folks have not been proven guilty, which is very important to remember. Being in jail is harmful on so many different levels, but another way that it causes harm is that you can also get more charges on you while you are in jail for various different reasons, which also then creates a larger barrier for you to be released.

And listeners may remember the case of Kalief Browder; that was just a bail story. That was years that a young man spent on Rikers Island not convicted of anything.

Right. Right. And Kalief was an anomaly, in the sense that he didn’t plead guilty, because he wasn’t guilty, and he wouldn’t do what most people do, which is plead guilty just to get out, right? He wanted the system to do as they say, which is give a fair trial.

Well, media talk about inequality, and they talk about talking about inequality, but I’m always struck at how little interest they can muster when an actual mechanism of inequality is laid before them. And I was actually thinking about the federal appeals court ruling that said that if a person has suffered wage discrimination in the past, has been paid less due to sexism or racism or their intersection, that it’s okay for that inequity to be reproduced and perpetuated forever, because employers can base your pay on your previous pay.


And I thought, well, here’s a chance — we’re actually seeing inequality be reproduced. And the media reaction was like, eh, you know, what are you gonna do? So I have to say that I was surprised a little bit to see a kind of earnest reaction to Mama’s Bailout Day.


I expected a lot more cynicism. What did you make of the media, and how can reporting help, do you think, on this issue?

Yeah, the media was definitely surprisingly gracious about Mama’s Bailout Day, and I’m not sure why. I think that it touched a lot of people, because mothers.


Right? Because of that sort of familial connection — we all have mothers, regardless of what our relationships to them are. So that was a good thing, and part of the strategy with the Bailout, a good thing that all of us could connect to. But then also recognizing that people’s lives should not be contingent on their familial ties, and having children or things like that. So just highlighting both of those, it caused a lot of conversations around bail, around our ideals, around innocence and guilt, our ideals around who’s worthy and who’s unworthy, and it forced continued conversations. So I think that the media was definitely helpful in that way, in just lifting up these stories and these injustices. And I think what the media can continue to do is continue to lift up these stories and the injustices, and also have people ask these questions as to, why is bail being set?

And then, I know in the beginning you said “lateral,” but what we’ve learned from Mama’s Bailout Day, and what I’ve learned from working at the National Bail Fund Network, is that bail is so different, depending on where you are. And that’s part of just how the system works to make it harder for you to actually fight against it. The New York City bail system is very different than California’s bail system. So that was definitely something that we had to navigate, in figuring how this action could be successful.

We’ve been speaking with Arissa Hall of the National Bail Fund Network, housed at the Brooklyn Community Bail Fund. You can still get information on Mama’s Bailout Day at Arissa Hall, thank you so much for joining us today on CounterSpin.

Thank you. Thank you.

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