Shuna Shell was desperate: The 28-year-old mother needed $500 to pay bail to be released from the Shelby County Jail so she could be with her two children.
That payment would be easy for some Memphians, but for Shell and her family, it was impossible. “They were tapped out. I couldn’t find anybody else to help me,” said Shell, who lost her job as a hospital housekeeper while she was locked up.
After five anxiety-filled days behind bars last April, Shell was bailed out just after Mother’s Day.
Her rescuer: The Official Black Lives Matter Memphis Chapter and the #FreeBlackMamas push, led by the National Bail Out Collective. The organization works with groups around the country to pay bail fees so mothers can not only be reunited with their children but also keep their employment and their families intact.
This is the third year for the local BLM drive to raise money to free poor black moms doomed to spend Mother’s Day, which is Sunday, in jail.
Shell was “bailed out on April 17, 2018, after the launch of our Mother’s Day campaign,” said Shahidah Jones, BLM Memphis lead organizer. “We’ve bailed out over 30 people in total. In a nutshell, it comes down to [bail] does not serve a purpose. It’s a class and race thing. Folks who may be innocent may be held just because they cannot pay their bail.”
Black Lives Matter and the collective are a part of a national movement to end money bail and pretrial detention, which disproportionately affects black people. Collective officials say an average 700,000 people languish daily in local jails, separated from their families. Shelby County Jail averages about 3,000 inmates daily with a men’s facility at 201 Poplar Ave. and a women’s jail at 6201 Haley Road.
The United States leads the world in incarceration, “locking up its citizens at five to 10 times the rate of other industrialized nations,” according to The Sentencing Project in Washington, D.C. A majority — 70 percent — of pretrial releases require bail to get out of jail, and low-income defendants comprise a large share of people negatively affected.
And when it comes to bail and pretrial detention, stark race and class differences are revealed. Consider Hollywood celebrities, like Felicity Huffman and Lori Laughlin, ensnared in the Varsity Blues college entrance cheating scandal, and who bailed out quickly. Or, look at #MeToo and the case of mega-producer Harvey Weinstein, who was able to quickly pay his $1 million bail on rape charges.
“When our people are captured by the police, many of them are in a moment of crisis, and being held in jail only heightens that moment of crisis,” said Erica Perry, a member of the collective’s advisory committee and local BLM chapter.
Often, Memphians are arrested because they may have a mental health crisis that needs treatment, not jail, Perry said. Sometimes, people struggle with drug addiction, which again calls for treatment, or they may be accused of a minor crime, such as trespassing.
BLM bailed out a Memphis mom who was locked up after another driver rear-ended her: “She didn’t have insurance, so she was taken to jail. Her children were in the car with her,” Perry said.
Bail was set at $10,000. The mother was in crisis, and because she was locked away for over a week, the children were put into crisis, Perry said.
Memphis’ high poverty rate assures a teeming jail population, languishing behind bars while waiting for a court date even when the bail amount is relatively small, as little as $500, Jones said. Bail amounts often fluctuate wildly for the same charges.
Keeping accused people locked up before trial creates horrible outcomes for them, according to The Sentencing Project. Defendants are more likely to be convicted and take “less favorable plea deals.” They are also more likely to be sentenced to prison and get longer sentences.
Forget pretrial assessments. Just assess.
Abolishing money bail is only half the battle, Jones and Perry said. They also want to do away with pretrial risk assessments that evaluate which defendants can be trusted to wait for their trials on the outside instead of behind bars without paying bond. It’s time to get people the help they need, which can be medical or economic — but definitely not jail, they said.
Perry said those assessments have been proven to be unfair to black defendants.
The Partnership on AI, companies and organizations dedicated to studying the efficacy of using algorithms to administer criminal justice, including pretrial assessments, weighed in after Congress passed the First Step Act in December 2018. The group includes bias as a danger factor is relying on algorithms.
“Although the use of these tools is in part motivated by the desire to mitigate existing human fallibility in the criminal justice system, it is a serious misunderstanding to view tools as objective or neutral simply because they are based on data,” according to study results released in April.
Perry puts it more simply:
“If the tree is bad, you know the fruit will be bad, too.”
That hasn’t stopped Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris from embracing a tool called Public Safety Assessment to help reduce the number of people awaiting trial in Shelby County Jail. Llana Greer, the county’s new executive director of pretrial services, is working with this tool. The assessment uses nine factors, including age at the time of arrest, prior misdemeanor and/or violent convictions, and whether a person has pending charges at the time of arrest, to predict whether a person is likely to skip their court date or engage in criminal activity, according to the National Partnership for Pretrial Justice. Each situation is assigned points — with higher points indicating greater risk associated with letting a person out on bail and is based on research involving 750,000 cases from about 300 jurisdictions. States like Kentucky and New Jersey use the assessment, as well as cities like Houston and Chicago.
The mayor’s office declined to talk further about how the office will manage the possibility of biased assessment outcomes linked to race and class.
Josh Spickler, executive director of Just City, is on record supporting the tool, though he knows such risk assessment tools have a spotty track record. A frequent and harsh critic of money bail, he characterizes this approach as a pragmatic one “to empty our jails safely” in the absence of any other way to do so.
#FreeBlackMamas made this Memphis mom’s day
Shell is thankful BLM took the time to raise money to get her out of jail and back to her South Memphis home with her son and daughter, under age 5.
While In lockup for five days, she was fired from her job because she didn’t show up and couldn’t call in. She spent her days avoiding bad meals like hotdogs and cornbread, and worrying whether her kids were “being taken care of right,” at her auntie’s house.
“It was hard to take a shower because it was overcrowded,” said Shell, who told MLK50: Justice Through Journalism she was charged with aggravated battery and assault but pled guilty to simple assault with a year’s probation.
Getting help from BLM “was a major relief for me,” she said.
Where do we go from here?
Donate to #FreeBlackMamas. Make a tax-deductible donation to the BLM Community Bail Fund at Mid-South Peace & Justice Center:
Get to know National Bailout Collective.
They are community-based activists and lawyers connected across the nation. Participating organizations include Southerners on New Ground, Texas Organizing Project, Dream Defenders and The Ordinary People Society.
Read the Partnership on AI’s algorithmic risk assessment report.
This story is brought to you by MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, a nonprofit reporting project on economic justice in Memphis. Support independent journalism by making a tax-deductible donation today. MLK50 is also supported by the Surdna Foundation, the Southern Documentary Project and Community Change.