Why Philly groups are celebrating Mother's Day by bailing out black moms

Romeeka Williams (left) speaks about criminal justice for the Youth Art & Self-Empowerment Project. She spent time in the system as a juvenile, then again as an adult, when she was hit with $50,000 bail for intoxicated driving.

When Romeeka Williams was charged with driving under the influence about a year and a half ago, the steep bail -- $50,000 – was far beyond her means.

So, the North Philadelphia mother of two spent three weeks in jail, and her children, ages 1 and 3 at the time, were left with her grandmother.

“It hurt them a lot, because they’re so used to me. They don’t have nobody else,” she said. “My son was acting out. He was crying for his mom.”

Worse, she almost lost her apartment, because she wasn’t able to pay her rent or contact her landlord from prison. “My grandmother, she barely had food in the house. She was struggling to even feed my kids. Luckily, I didn’t have a grandmother who would give up on my kids and call DHS.”

Now a coalition of activist groups aims to assist women in such straits, by recasting Mother’s Day as National Mamas Bail-Out Day, an effort to bring black women in jail home to their families and inform the public about the effects of cash bail on poor people, and on black women and families in particular.

A crowd-funding effort local to Philadelphia launched this week and raised more than $20,000 in three days -- enough to post the necessary 10 percent of bail for a dozen or more women incarcerated on amounts as low as $5,000.

Organizers with the No215Jail Coalition, Philadelphia Student Union, and other groups are working with the Defender Association of Philadelphia to identify women who may want to participate.

“Some of the women have been incarcerated three or four months, just because they didn’t have $500,” said Reuben Jones, who is part of the No215Jail group and leads the reentry organization Frontline Dads. “I talk to women all the time coming out of jail who have lost their children to DHS or foster care because they were incarcerated, and are now fighting to get their children back. Also, women who lost their apartments or their homes.”

The women who may participate have not been convicted of a crime. But the charges against them, he said, may range from theft to simple assault or aggravated assault. The goal is not to circumvent the course of justice, but to level the field until the legal process reaches its conclusion.

The group intends to post as many bails as possible on Saturday. For those they bail out, they’re offering support ranging from housing to job training to treatment to family reunification -- whatever the women need to make sure they get back on their feet and also show up for court.

Jones said the women would be able to choose, at the conclusion of their cases, whether to keep the bail refund to help support their families or to pay it forward to bail out someone else.

The project is practical, but also political, said Hiram Rivera of Philadelphia Student Union. The advocates believe no one should be held pretrial simply for lack of funds.

In the last year, Philadelphia courts have instituted an early bail review system for those held on nonviolent, low-bail charges. So far, more than 300 people who could not afford to pay their bails within a week were released on their own signatures, and 92 percent of them showed up for their first court date.

Advocates say it’s a good first step, but it doesn’t go far enough.

“We hope through this process that, one, these women can come home to their families, and that the broader Philadelphia community, elected officials, and especially the district attorney candidates can learn more about why the cash-bail system in Philadelphia needs to be changed,” Rivera said.