Kendra Harrell and Janay Shepard of Detroit have been assisted by Michigan Liberation. | Ken Coleman
During a hearty dinner with festive music, Michigan Liberation held its “Michigan Black Mama’s Bail Out Celebration” this week in Detroit’s Old Redford community. The occasion was designed to fete mothers it has bailed out of metro Detroit area jails over the last four years.
“I have witnessed a demonstrative carceral system failing the people it should serve. Pretrial detainees retain the right to the presumption of innocence, yet their liberties are being trampled upon daily. Recent statistics show that in Michigan on any given day, nearly 8,000 presumed innocent people are stuck in jail awaiting trial because they can’t afford bail,” said Nell Hearns, Michigan Liberation’s bail program administrator, on Tuesday.
The organization launched the effort in 2019. As of February, Michigan Liberation has bailed out 81 people and seeks to provide mentorship and support to their clients. Its goal is to “get as many Black people out of cages while drawing attention to the heinous practice of money bail and the bail bond industry in order to inspire action.”
Michigan Liberation’s partners include other social action and justice organizations including Detroit Justice Center, Detroit Action, Mothering Justice, Focus: Hope and the ACLU of Michigan.
Hearns said that law enforcement agencies in Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties “disproportionately lock up low-income people of color who have yet to be convicted of the crime for which they’re being held.”
“Parents are especially hard hit as their children bear the brunt of incarceration,” Hearns added.
Michigan Liberation takes on cases of those who face a minor offense that have a bond of $5,000 or less. The bail amount has ranged from $5 to $4,000.
Kendra Harrell and Janay Shepard of Detroit attended the celebration and have both been assisted by Michigan Liberation. Harrell said some police officers, particularly in suburban areas, seek to harass Black motorists.
“Just to make a living, we have to be scared to drive,” Harrell said.
Shepard pointed out that when Black women are placed into custody, many of them are separated from their families – which includes children. Michigan Liberation said the group assisted a Black woman in 2022 who was a single mother who had 6-year-old, 3-year-old, and a 4 month old at the time of her arrest. She spent 23 days in Wayne County Jail because she could not produce a $2,500 cash bond.
“It’s basically ransom for our freedom,” added Shepard about the cash bail system.
The Washtenaw County Prosecutor’s Office does not make use of cash bail as a result of a 2021 policy. It was the first county in Michigan to carry out the policy.
“I pledged during the campaign that we would not be seeking cash bail, and I’m proud to make good on that promise today,” Washtenaw County Prosecutor Eli Savit said in a statement in 2021. “Cash bail is inherently inequitable and unjust. The size of a person’s bank account should never determine their freedom.”
Beginning in 2022, the 36th District Court in Detroit has sought to curtail its use of cash bail. It came after Michigan’s largest district court and social justice advocates, including the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), announced that it had settled a federal class-action lawsuit over cash bail practices, which activists say routinely and unconstitutionally jail poor and working-class defendants despite evidence of their inability to pay.
The ACLU of Michigan, when analyzing 36th District Court cases, observed that when setting bail, magistrates often made no inquiry into the person’s ability to pay. What’s more, in 85% of the cases, the arrested person was required to pay cash bail in order to be released.
The lawsuit, filed on behalf of seven Black plaintiffs in U.S. District Court, described a two-tier legal system in which a person’s freedom depends on their ability to afford bail, a clear violation of due process and equal protection.
“The named plaintiffs in this case have all been detained since their arrests and remain in jail because they cannot afford the bail set in their cases,” a portion of the complaint reads.
The lawsuit also claimed violations of the right to counsel because poor people accused of crimes are not provided attorneys to represent them when bail is being set.
During the last Michigan Legislative session, a group of bipartisan legislators introduced an eight-bill package aimed at reforming Michigan’s cash bail system and creating a fairer pre-trial process. Their bills would create more efficient court processes, implement more structured bail decision-making, strengthen due process rights, delink interim bond practices from the ability to pay, and require a review of pretrial risk assessment instruments.
The package was not approved.
The Michigan Advance asked a spokesperson for House Speaker Joe Tate (D-Detroit), Michigan’s first African American to hold the post, about plans on the issue this session.
“The House Democratic Caucus is looking at a number of policy areas related to public safety and criminal justice reforms and Speaker Tate looks forward to those ongoing discussions,” Amber McCann told the Advance on Thursday.
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