Mamas Bail Out Day

Mamas Bail Out Day feature

Mothers should be with their families on Mother’s Day, not in jail waiting for a trial simply because they’re too poor to post bond.

This week, TOP and the Right2Justice coalition are partnering with organizations across the country to bail out mamas in time for Mother’s Day. Pitch in now to help us free mothers so they can be reunited with their families!

Every day, dozens of mothers languish in the Harris County Jail simply because they can’t afford bail. They haven’t been convicted of anything, and many are accused of minor infractions.

The judges that set bond in Harris County, however, like in so many other jurisdictions across the country, simply don’t care about poor people. To them, being poor equates to being dangerous.

Last week a federal judge ordered Harris County to stop jailing people for being poor. The order goes into effect May 15, but meanwhile, we are going to post bond for mothers so they can spend Mother’s Day at home with their families.

Pitch in $20 today, or any amount, so we can let these women know that being poor isn’t a jailable offense, that they deserve to be free while awaiting trial so they can take care of their families. We will begin bailing mothers out this week!

Justice shouldn’t be available only to those who can afford it.

TOP Statement on Harris County Bail Lawsuit Decision

The following statement was made by Tarsha Jackson, criminal justice director of the Texas Organizing Project, on the decision handed down today on the bail lawsuit against Harris County:

“This is exactly the ruling we expected. We’ve long believed Harris County’s practice of holding people charged with misdemeanor crimes on high bonds without taking into account their ability to pay unconstitutional, expensive and inhumane. The court affirmed the unconstitutionality.

“Jail should be reserved for people who are dangerous and are serving their sentences, not mothers and fathers suspected of minor crimes who simply can’t afford to buy their freedom.

“Harris County would do right to accept the judge’s ruling and not appeal. Unfortunately, we expect an appeal. Harris County’s judges and every commissioner, except Commissioner Rodney Ellis, have dug in their heels in defense of the indefensible. They’ve already lined up attorney Charles J. Cooper, who has defended bans on interracial dating and same sex marriage, disenfranchisement of people with felonies and discriminatory redistricting, to represent them on appeal.

“We know that ultimately, courts will stop Harris County from keeping people accused of misdemeanors in jail simply because they’re too poor to pay for their freedom. The only question left to be answered is how much of taxpayers’ money will the county waste to defend this horrid, inhumane practice?”

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Texas Organizing Project organizes Black and Brown communities in Texas’ three largest counties with the goal of transforming Texas into a state where working people of color have the power and representation they deserve. For more information, visit organizetexas.org.

Nonprofit Aims to Close Modern-day Debtors’ Prisons in Texas

House prison

Debtors’ prisons aren’t legal. Authorities are not supposed to be able to lock up individuals who can’t afford to pay their fines—unless they “willfully refuse.” This is where the gray area forms, where poor people go to jail when they can’t afford the fines for minor offenses. Thousands of people are being jailed for fines they can’t afford to pay—and at least one nonprofit organization in Texas hopes to end that.

The Texas Organizing Project (TOP) is a 501(c)(4) nonprofit, which means it’s allowed to advocate and lobby as its main activity, unlike the more familiar 501(c)(3) charities. The organization has proposed a bill for the City of Houston that would improve how poor people are treated in municipal court. These offenses are particularly aimed at Class C misdemeanor cases, such as traffic violations.

“The whole idea is to not arrest people, especially indigent folks, on these traffic offenses—they are non-jailable offenses. They’re for debt. And they should be handled like debt,” says Tarsha Jackson, director of TOP’s Harris County chapter. “Police officers are currently acting like bill collectors, and they shouldn’t be.”
TOP suggests that municipal judges hold a full hearing into defendants’ ability to pay before imposing a fine upon them. For people below the poverty line, fines would be reduced or tailored to the individual’s financial circumstances, and community service would also be offered as an alternative. If someone is unable to pay or complete community service, they would get another hearing to explain the situation before being sent to jail.

Community service and reduced fines are already an option, but it doesn’t happen much. An investigation by a criminal justice transition team put into place after Mayor Sylvester Turner took office last year reported that community service was offered to less than two percent of the almost 170,000 cases in Houston municipal courts. Fines were waived for only six indigent people.

Other organizations have been researching the situation in Houston and coming up with the same answer: Impoverished people are being targeted for their inability to pay fines for minor offenses they commit. In November, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Texas found that just over 20 percent of people facing Class C fines are living in poverty. Of the 500 people sent to jail for a failure to pay over a period of four months, 30 percent were listed as homeless or not having an address.

The ACLU even went as far as to sue the city of Santa Fe, Texas—a town with population of 12,000 just south of Houston—in November 2016 on behalf of three men, accusing the city of prioritizing raising revenue for the city over administering justice fairly. As of now, there is a pending motion to dismiss the case.

The Houston area may draw the most attention in Texas, and possibly the most cases due to its sheer size, but other regions in the state are having the same issue. Last summer, an Amarillo attorney released documents that showed the city jailing people, including a disabled veteran, who couldn’t pay municipal fines. Another resident fined there was a woman living on $490 a month from Social Security disability who owed $520. Then there’s Austin, where a mother of five was fined for a minor traffic violation, including not having a driver’s license. She couldn’t afford to pay for a driver’s license until she paid off her traffic fines, but she had to keep driving her children to school and her husband to work, and the cycle continued.

Various bills regarding debtors’ prisons are being tackled in the Texas legislature. In the meantime, TOP is leading the way in Texas’ largest city. If successful in this part of criminal justice reform, they just may be a model for other advocacy organizations to follow.—Angie Wierzbicki

This story originally appeared 4/6/2017 in Nonprofit Quarterly.