MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
Public service announcement - Mother's Day is tomorrow. Cue up the usual - flowers or breakfast in bed. Then there's the plan hatched by a coalition of activists focused on racial and criminal justice issues. They teamed up to raise bail money for mothers behind bars to bail out women who might otherwise spend Mother's Day in jail. NPR's Cheryl Corley reports.
CHERYL CORLEY, BYLINE: There's been a sharp increase in the number of women behind bars in this country, rising to more than a million since the 1980s. About 100,000 of them are locked up in jails waiting for their day in court. Rashad Robinson is the head of Color of Change, one of several organizations that teamed up to raise money for what they're calling National Mama Bail Out Day (ph). And Robinson says Mother's Day is the right time to examine how race, class and gender play a role in the criminal justice system.
RASHAD ROBINSON: And these women on Mother's Day who are in jail have not been convicted of anything. They are awaiting trial. They are innocent until proven guilty. And if these women - many of them if they were rich, they would be home with their families.
CORLEY: Instead of in jail. Typically, a judge sets a bond amount to make sure the person released shows up in court, usually they pay 10 percent of that amount. But for many women, that can be difficult. In her living room, LaVette Maiz (ph) and a friend joke around with her 7-year-old son telling him he must eat first before he plays. It's nearly dinner time.
LAVETTE MAIZ: So I asked you, did you want Chinese food or what?
CORLEY: The majority of incarcerated women are in for nonviolent offenses. Maiz, though, was arrested on an aggravated battery charge two years ago. She had no criminal record, so her bail set at $250,000 was a shock.
MAIZ: I sat there for months and months because I wasn't able to make the bail - not because of my case, not because of what I was in for. And there was several women the same way.
CORLEY: Although her bail was reduced twice, it took 14 months before Maiz won her release. During that time, she lost her job. She lost her home.
MAIZ: My kids - I missed their graduation. My daughter graduated from 8th grade. I missed my son graduating from kindergarten.
CORLEY: Now she volunteers with a nonprofit bail fund working to change the way the system is run. At Chicago's massive Cook County Jail where LaVette Maiz spend her 14 months, the gray cinder block tunnels under Division 5 connect the holding cells for people just arrested. Up in the lobby, Sergeant Jeffrey Stewart (ph) points to a small corner office where people post bail.
JEFFREY STEWART: It's just a teller station. I mean, basically, it's like going to the currency exchange.
CORLEY: Out of the 8,000 held at the jail, about five to 600 are women. Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart who supports bail reform says the flaw of cash bail is obvious.
TOM DART: Theoretically, we should be sitting in front of a judge saying, judge, because of the offense this person committed, we are going to hold them for seven or eight months, and we're also going to take their job away from them as part of the penalty. That's how we're going to teach this person a lesson because that's what is in effect happening.
CORLEY: Jeff Clayton executive director of the American Bail Coalition says he welcomes reforms, but not the elimination of the entire cash bail system. He says jurisdictions should set minimum bail levels.
JEFF CLAYTON: To me, that's the answer. You know, make judges do a reasonable - a real bail or make a choice. And I think what will end up happening is a lot of these lower-level folks will just get released, and the ones that are actually severe will have to post a bail And, you know, that's what we want.
CORLEY: And while many cities and states are grappling with bail reform, the immediate concern of Mama Bail Out Day organizers is getting women out of jail. So far, they've raised more than a quarter of a million dollars. Cheryl Corley, NPR News, Chicago. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.