‘If We Let Everybody Go, There’d Be Nobody in Prison’
For Mother’s Day last year, Ebony Thomas’s new husband, Anthony, gifted her a car, a white Volkswagen Passat bought secondhand.
She had just started a new job, working as a medical assistant at a facility near to their home in Lakewood Heights, in southeast Atlanta.
“My husband wanted me to have a car to get around better, especially with the new job,” she told me. One month later, with Anthony out of town for work, Ms. Thomas decided to make a run to the store. Two blocks from home, Ms. Thomas was stopped by a police officer.
Her tag light was out and she had yet to purchase appropriate stickers for the car. She also had an outstanding seatbelt ticket from another traffic stop in 2015. “I didn’t really have the money to pay that ticket. Then we moved and I honestly just forgot about it,” she said.
Because the ticket went ignored, and Ms. Thomas had failed to appear in court, her license had been suspended. The arresting officer “was going to let me go, after I reasoned with him some,” Ms. Thomas said. “He let me out of the squad car and was just going to tow my car.”
Then another officer arrived, and he persuaded the original officer to go through with the arrest.
“I remember he said, ‘If we let everybody go, there’d be nobody in prison,’” Ms. Thomas said.
She was taken to Atlanta’s Fulton County jail, and she was in jail for three days before a family member found her. Her relatives had been frantic, calling all the local hospitals and police stations. “This is really embarrassing, but I couldn’t remember anybody’s number by heart,” Ms. Thomas said. “I couldn’t call anybody, so I just sat there.”
A judge set Ms. Thomas’s bail at $1,500. Bail is paid at 10 percent. Her family couldn’t afford $150, so Ms. Thomas remained in jail for eight days.
During that time, her name was picked up by several organizations that had banded together for a Mother’s Day initiative last year that would pay bail for black mothers who couldn’t afford it. The organizations, which include National Bailout and the nonprofit Color of Change, eventually paid for over 100 black mothers around the country to leave jail. (National Bailout says they bail out all varieties of black mothers: “queer, trans, young, elder and immigrant.”) Ms. Thomas was one of them.
"Our ultimate goal is to end money bail,” said Clarice McCants, the criminal justice campaign director of Color of Change. But for now, “there are mothers, away from their families, languishing in jail just because they lack the funds to make bail.”
In the United States, a bail payment is intended as collateral. It’s meant to ensure that a person charged with a crime will appear in court if they are released before trial. As such, bail payments are not meant to be prohibitively expensive — they are meant to incentivize a person to return to court. The Eighth Amendment, in particular, outlaws “excessive” bail amounts, but there is a national crisis of sky-high bail amounts.
As a result, pretrial detention is the norm, rather than a limited exception. In 2016, according to the Prison Policy Initiative, around 70 percent of county jail inmates nationwide had not been convicted of a crime.
Ms. Thomas’s bail may not have counted as “excessive,” but for her it was still outside the realm of affordability. Expensive bail, in general, is a far more widespread problem for black women, as they are four times as likely to be imprisoned as white women. Black defendants routinely receive higher bail amounts than white defendants with similar charges.
Many things happen while people are held awaiting trial. Families lose income. Children suffer the absence of a parent. The costs of incarceration — whether its fees paid to probation officers or payments made to bail bondsmen — add up, and can be debilitating for families that are already financially vulnerable.
A secondary fear, for many, is the involvement of Child Protective Services. Ms. Thomas felt fortunate that her son, Jorden, was seventeen at the time of her arrest, and her family intervened to care for him while she was away.
But her inability to afford bail still resulted in a chain of personal disasters. She lost her job because of the extended period of absence. She now has a criminal background, which makes finding work difficult. Her court fines, coupled with a fee she pays to see her probation officer every month, came to $150 — the original amount of bail she could not pay.
“It’s absolutely ludicrous,” she said. “I make a way, doing odd jobs and babysitting here and there. But I’m not a criminal, you know. I didn’t hurt anybody, or kill anybody.”
Since her release, Ms. Thomas has become a spokeswoman for the organizations that bailed her out. “They use my face in the advertisements,” she said, and laughed.
This year, the groups have reunited to bail out more mothers. Color of Change has counted 59 women bailed out by Friday, a number expected to grow. Organizers are planning a similar initiative in June to bail out black fathers for Father’s Day.
In the meantime, Ms. Thomas is facing the continuing costs of bail as they come. “I just lean on God, you know?” she said. “I depend on him.”