Simone Oliver took her first-ever trip to the Bexar County jail on April 25, when she said an argument with her partner spiraled into a misdemeanor domestic assault charge. Because she couldn’t afford $3,000 bail, Oliver spent 14 nights in lockup. Without someone to watch them, Oliver’s two young children were sent to stay with family outside the state. Oliver, who’s three months pregnant, also lost her job. But on Thursday, she got an unexpected reprieve, thanks to activists who paid her bail. She called the ability to spend Mother’s Day with her kids this weekend “a gift from God.”
“I can’t wait to see my babies,” Oliver told the Observer soon after walking through the jail’s front doors, squinting at the sunshine. “It’s the longest I’ve ever been away from my children.”
Activists with the Texas Organizing Project (TOP), which advocates for poor Texans, raised money to bail out Oliver and a dozen other black mothers across the state this week as part of a movement seeking to end what civil rights groups call “wealth-based detention.” While jailing people because they’re poor remains commonplace across the criminal justice archipelago, activists have fought to chip away at the practice in recent years. One of their biggest wins occurred in Texas last year, when Houston federal court judge Lee Rosenthal declared it unconstitutional for Harris County to jail low-level defendants simply because they can’t afford bail.
In her opinion, Rosenthal stated that cash bail “exacerbates the racial disparities” that already exist in the justice system, pointing to research showing that defendants who remain in lockup are much more likely to plead guilty and face longer jail sentences than people who can afford to fight their cases on the outside. Rosenthal characterized it as a system of “sentence first, convict after.”
Along the way, activists have managed to gain some government support for changing bail practices. Officials in Houston have compared Harris County’s landmark case to Brown v. Board of Education in terms of its civil rights impact. While change has been too little and too slow to avoid lawsuits over the matter, officials in Dallas and Galveston have made attempts to tweak how those counties handle pretrial detention.
Bexar County Sheriff Javier Salazar connected cash bail to the overcrowded state of his jail, which he said broke its population record last year and is on track for another record year in 2018. On Thursday, he stood in front of the jail next to TOP organizers and other groups calling for the end of cash bail.
“Jail is for people that society is afraid of, it is not for people we’re mad at, and it’s certainly not for people who simply can’t afford to get themselves out,” Salazar said. “We’ve got to find another way of doing things. Speaking from a strictly dollars-and-cents perspective, it’s costing Bexar County taxpayers more money to incarcerate these folks than it’s costing TOP to get them out.”
LaQuita Garcia, the TOP organizer who coordinated with Bexar County officials for Thursday’s bail out, said that in March the group similarly posted bail to release eight men who’d been jailed on low-level charges for weeks, the majority of them for drug possession.
She said the group focused on pregnant mothers this week not only due to the upcoming holiday, but also to raise awareness of rising female incarceration rates in the state.
As I’ve previously written, the number of women in lockup awaiting trial in Texas has increased some 48 percent since 2011, compared to an 11 percent increase for men over that same period. Some counties are planning space to jail more women, even as the number of women arrested in Texas has fallen in recent years.
In Dallas, activists bailed out six women, including a mother of four who spent more than a month behind bars because she couldn’t pay the $500 bond on her criminal trespass charge. The group bailed out five incarcerated women in Houston on Thursday.
Shamika Prince, the other woman TOP bailed out from the Bexar County jail on Thursday, sat behind bars for 15 days because she couldn’t afford the $800 bond that was set after her arrest on a misdemeanor theft charge. Six months pregnant, Prince told me she met several other women in lockup that are pregnant and poor like her.
“I seen a whole lot of pregnant women up in there,” she said. “There’s a whole lot of them in there. Fortunately I got out. It feels like God picked me.”