None of JaCari Letchaw's five kids got any presents this past Christmas, and none of them were upset.
Her kids were actually trying to sell their toys and other possessions to help bail their mom out of jail. She was arrested on robbery charges Dec. 11 and her bail was set at $60,000, a price she could not afford. So she remained in the Jefferson County Jail in Birmingham, Alabama while awaiting trial.
“Everybody was crying. My children were trying to sell stuff, their games, everything and the TVs. I was like, ‘Well, don’t sell the kids' games.’ ... They just wanted me home. Our daughter didn’t even want to talk to me,” when Letchaw called home from jail because it was too painful, she recalled.
Letchaw, a single mother, said she was arrested after her then-pregnant dog, Pandemic, wandered to a neighbor’s house and had the puppies there. She said she went to retrieve them and the neighbor said Letchaw, 40, was trying to steal the puppies and called the police.
Letchaw was charged with first degree robbery, and her case is still pending in Jefferson County Court. She was in jail for two weeks.
“I absolutely had no idea how I was going to pay my bail. There was no way possible. Sitting in there, I even lost my job” at $14 an hour, Letchaw said, adding that she almost lost her house during her stay in jail.
Many people in jail are like JaCari Letchaw, incarcerated because they can’t afford to post bail.
Moms behind bars
Of the more than 115,000 women in U.S. jails, more than 60 percent haven’t been convicted of a crime, but are locked up while awaiting trial because they can’t make bail, according to the Sentencing Project, a research and advocacy nonprofit aimed at decreasing incarceration.
Forty-four percent of women in jail are Black, and 80% of women are single mothers or primary caregivers for their children, according to a 2016 report by Vera Institute of Justice, a non-profit committed to ending mass incarceration.
Letchaw remained in jail until local organization Faith and Works posted the full bail amount on her behalf on Christmas.
Faith and Works is specifically dedicated to Black mothers. There are funds across the country bailing out defendants who cannot afford their bails for low level, non-violent offenses. The funds are temporary fixes to a cash bail system advocates say they want to see reformed or abolished altogether.
Her three youngest kids met her at the jail for her release in an emotional reunion caught on tape.
“No one even said anything about not having a Christmas present. I’m like wow, that was kind of different. They did say maybe they got one from somewhere but it wasn’t even a big ‘Mom, we didn’t even get anything for Christmas’” because her coming home was the gift, Letchaw said.
And her kids appreciate the gift of her being home. Letchaw said they’re more protective and even worry about her leaving the house because they don’t want anything to happen.
They've been doing more chores around the house, she said: “These little people clean like I do. There’s no way they can tell me they can’t do it anymore. Because they really have been picking up and helping out.”
Letchaw said her returning home meant the world to her and her kids.
“This is a whole new meaning to Christmas. It’s not even about the gifts at this point because this is about God’s birthday ... Without God, I don’t know where I will be right now.”
Her oldest son accompanied her in trying to get the dogs back and he was also arrested. Letchaw said his bail was set at $90,000. He is still in jail, awaiting trial.
"I can't make that, there's no way," she said. "He calls me every day about in tears, 'Mom, I'm ready to go.' I'm like baby I know. He's like 'Mom, this is not me.' I'm like baby I know. Trust me."
What are bail funds?
The National Bail Fund Network is an umbrella organization for more than 90 community bail funds, most of which are organized by local or state activists who collect donations from community members and businesses. They usually have partnerships with public defenders and sheriff’s departments to get referrals on potential candidates. After receiving a referral, the organizations typically look at whether defendants have somewhere to live and work, a support system to help them, and how much of a threat they might pose to society before deciding who to bail out.
Most states have at least one bail fund.
The funds operate on a revolving door system: The organization fronts the money to post bail for defendants. If the case is dismissed, or the defendant returns for trial, the money is returned and used for the next case. According to the Richmond Community Bail Fund, funds across the U.S. typically see a more than 90 percent rate of return on their money.
Cara McClure, 52, in Birmingham, Alabama founded Faith and Works in 2017 and its bail fund three years later. She said a flaw in the cash bail system is that it criminalizes poverty while rewarding wealth.
“Paying ransom for freedom is something that goes way back, historically,” McClure said. “Let’s just say, for instance, me and you committed the same crime. You have money, I don’t have money. You get to go home and I have to sit there. And I just don’t understand me sitting there.”
The movement for bail reform
Advocates have long been pushing for elected officials to reform the cash bail system. McClure said one reason she thinks it hasn’t happened yet is because incarceration companies support politicians with large donations. During the 2020 election cycle, for example, the for-profit private prison company GEO Group donated more than $2.6 million to candidates running for federal office, according to Open Secrets, a nonprofit that tracks campaign finance and lobbying.
A 2016 report issued by the Vera Institute of Justice said the majority of women in jail are there on low-level, non-violent charges such as property, drug or public order offenses. The report also said poverty is a key reason people commit crimes, adding that 60 percent of women in jail did not have full-time employment when they were arrested.
McClure said she wants to end cash bail and thinks the system should be replaced by "risk to society assessments," which determine whether someone would pose a threat when they're released.
Some states and local areas have reformed their cash bail systems. In 2017, New Jersey phased out the use of cash bail and instead performs risk assessments to determine pretrial releases. In the same year, Kentucky started releasing low-risk defendants without them seeing a judge. In 2020, San Francisco stopped using its cash bail system. Illinois became the first state to end cash bail in 2021.
The cash bail system has supporters, though.
Texas passed a bill last fall to expand its cash bail system. The law prohibits bail options for people previously accused or convicted of a violent crime, requires court officers who set bail to review defendants' criminal history and citizenship status before deciding bail and limits which charitable bail funds can bail people out, according to NBC San Antonio.
“This is not going to lead to mass incarceration,” State Senator Joan Huffman (R-Houston), who sponsored the bill, said in a hearing, according to NPR. “Instead, it should keep those who need to be in jail, in jail, so that our citizens can go about their everyday activities on the streets of Texas.”
At the federal level, cash bail reform has been largely untouched. People awaiting trial for federal crimes are eligible for bail based on what the presiding judge decides. The severity of the crime does not always mean a denial of bail.
High-profile examples of celebrities posting bail underscore bail reform advocates’ concern that bail is about money, not safety or justice.
Authorities arrested Rapper A$AP Rocky April 20 in connection with a shooting last November and the judge set bail at $550,000. He was released three hours later after posting bail and his case is currently pending. O.J. Simpson was granted bail in his 2008 armed robbery and kidnapping case, which ended in his eventual conviction and nine years in prison. Harvey Weinstein was granted bail, twice, totaling $2 million, while facing charges; he was convicted of rape and a ciminal sexual act and sentenced to 23 years in prison in New York, a decision he is appealing. Former financial mogul Bernard Madoff was granted bail at $10 million before pleading guilty to swindling families out of billions of dollars.
Meanwhile, people who can't afford bail, like Letchaw, are often stuck in jail for months.
"Poverty is profitable," McClure said. "A lot of money is being made from people being locked up."