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In the new year, let’s end the money bail policy that rips families apart (LA Times)

December 30, 2022

The approach of the new year should be a time of hope. As a pastor, I also see loneliness as families remain separated from a loved one in jail. And as someone who has been in jail, I know firsthand what it feels like to start the new year in a cage.

In 2002, while struggling with addiction, I was arrested. The only thing keeping me from being home with my family and continuing to seek the help I needed was money bail. But my family did not have the money to buy my freedom, so I was incarcerated for five months.

In jail, I was with people whose needs were being ignored. I had only one thin blanket, and I struggled to sleep with the sounds of hundreds of other people caged around me. The new year came, and my family suffered because I was away.

Inside jail, we found ways to support one another. We shared our chicken ramen and Cheetos, eating together on a plastic bag tablecloth. We made a holy space by holding hands in a circle and praying. We created human connections in a dark place where we didn’t belong.

Now, as a pastor, I support families that are separated because a loved one is in jail. My church celebrates the new year by hosting a community meal. Eating together, we share the joys and struggles from the last year. Last year, a mother struggled at Christmas. She watched her 9-year-old girl rip away wrapping paper to find Rollerblades and a helmet, laughing happily at the gift. While the mother was happy for her child, Christmas was a sad memory. The young girl’s father is locked up, unable to share this moment.

Many families will be starting 2023 with their hearts longing for their family members who are sitting in jail, alone, in need and needed.

This family separation breaks my heart every day. Some 54% of people jailed pretrial are parents of a child younger than 18. Around 40% of the time, pretrial jailing changes a child’s living situation.

We are jailing thousands of people because they do not have money to buy freedom. It is morally unconscionable.

Money bail also undermines our court system and makes communities less safe.

Study after study shows money bail does not increase court appearances. People miss court because they don’t know where to go, cannot access transportation, lack child care or have to work.

Money bail is a leading cause of wrongful convictions. From my own experience, I know when people can’t pay money bail, they face huge pressure to plead guilty. People take plea deals so they know when they’re going to go home and see their family.

Money bail also makes us less safe. There is growing agreement that support and services, not jailing, create safe communities. In Los Angeles every year, money bail extracts tens of millions of dollars from poor, primarily Black and Latinx communities. People who can’t pay are jailed, losing jobs and housing. This instability makes everyone less safe.

Currently, people are jailed for days before any judge or even a lawyer has seen their case. For example, a mother arrested on Thursday who cannot pay bail will not see her children until the following Tuesday at the earliest. That would be the first day a judge or lawyer will see her case.

This is why I, along with other clergy and people jailed pretrial, have sued the city and county of Los Angeles. In the case Urquidi vs. Los Angeles, we are challenging the policy of money-based jailing immediately after arrest.

This lawsuit is just the start.

We, as a society, are called to do more. We can stop building punishment systems that are racist and take aim at poor communities. We can build systems of care.

There are people who are sitting in a jail cell solely because they lack money, while others, with resources, are starting the new year at home, with their children.

It doesn’t have to be this way. We can change our laws so that no family is separated because of money bail.

Gary Williams is pastor of Saint Mark United Methodist Church in South Los Angeles.