Trapped by Money Bail

My daughter Tai is my number one priority. She’s always been ambitious and independent, and as a mother, I want to make sure she has what she needs to pursue her dreams. Last summer, she was at the BET awards, interviewing celebrities on the red carpet. I was so proud of her success.

But only a month later, everything changed for my family when she was arrested.

Tai was at a store with friends when a friend's girlfriend stole a few things. They were confronted by security, and Tai ended up driving off with her friends. Tai knows driving away was a mistake. She was 20 years old and she made a decision that she regrets. But because of how punitive our criminal justice system is, that choice continues to follow my family.

Tai’s arrest was one of the scariest moments of my life. Then I learned she faced a bail amount of $100,000. My only choice to get her out of jail was to pay 10% of her bail amount—$10,000—to a bail bondsman.

In California, the median bail amount is $50,000, which is five times higher than the national median. For families like mine though, any amount we have to pay for bail is a hardship.

In my case, I couldn’t even fathom what $10,000 looked like. But I was determined to find a way to pay the fee because I had to protect my daughter. I couldn’t let her stay in jail; I had to get her back home.

To help me and Tai, my mom gave up all of her savings and my aunt gave up part of hers as well. With their support, I was able to scrape together the $2,000 down payment, and got on a monthly payment plan. Eight months later, we still owe almost $7,000 to the bail bondsman.

It’s hard to explain what it’s like to have that debt hanging over our heads. Every day, I worry about how I’m going to pay rent, buy food, pay our bills, work, and support my family. The anxiety is overwhelming and I feel isolated and alone.

Before this happened, I had never been unable to pay my bills. But because of the amount we have to pay monthly for bail I’ve had to make impossible choices for my family—we’ve had our water shut off, had our cars repossessed, struggle to buy groceries, and can’t go to the doctor. When I get parking tickets now, I can’t pay them on time, so for a parking ticket that was initially $100, I now owe three times as much. Late fees are constantly piling up and our debts grow even larger.

The money bail system punishes people for being poor, and pushes us further into poverty. Families like mine take on long-term debt to get their loved ones out of jail, and because Black and Brown people are disproportionately criminalized and incarcerated, we are especially harmed.

Women in particular are hit the hardest—according to a 2015 report by the Ella Baker Center, Forward Together, and 20 other partner organizations, 83% of family members who take on court-related costs on behalf of loved ones are women. Money bail criminalizes poverty, puts justice out of reach for too many people, and does not make our communities any safer.

Ultimately, the charges against Tai were reduced to disturbing the peace. But regardless, bail debt continues to follow our family.

Leading up to Mother’s Day, organizations across the country are supporting incarcerated mothers through National Mama's Bail Out Day. In connection with that effort, the Ella Baker Center is supporting a fundraiser for me, as a mother, to help my family pay off our bail debt, from now until Mother’s Day.