This past Mother’s Day, a new political organization found an unusual way of observing the holiday: By standing in front of the Albemarle-Charlottesville Regional Jail holding signs in support of certain classes of incarcerated women.
The group, Southerners On New Ground, is a national group working to establish a local chapter. SONG wrote in a press release, “In Charlottesville, too many black women are being denied bond. Even though we have raised the money to bail out local black mamas, they are being forced to stay in jail while they await their trial due to overly harsh prosecutors and Virginia’s unfair presumptions against bond.”
It turns out that isn’t quite true at the local jail.
According to Superintendent Martin Kumer, there were a total of 30 women being held in the jail at the time of the demonstration.
“At that time we didn’t have anyone who could be released [if a bond was paid],” Kumer says. “That’s not surprising. Any time we do those reports like that we might have five to 10 people in the whole jail—men and women out of 453 as of right now—who if they posted bond could be released.”
When a suspect is arrested and charged with a crime, there are three types of decisions a judge can make: Release the suspect on her own recognizance without paying any money; set bail and require her to come up with cash for freedom until her trial date; or decide the suspect is either a flight risk or a danger to others and keep her in jail.
According to local SONG organizer Lyndsey Beutin, the group doesn’t have any evidence for the claim that a high number of black and/or LGBT women are being held without bond in the local jail.
Roberta Williamson, a long-time local activist for poor people charged with crimes (she’s not formally affiliated with SONG), believes the bail system has turned into a modern form of debtors’ prison and should be reformed.
“For some people, putting up bail means not paying rent, not buying food, not buying an inhaler for a kid. It puts people in a horrible position,” Williamson says. “Now, if someone has murdered someone that’s one thing. If someone has been picked up because they are driving when they are sober after they’ve lost their license for driving while intoxicated, they’re going to go to jail. …One person that I know was picked up on her way to pick up her sick son. …On the other hand, wealthy people I know who have lost their license can use Uber.”
Nationwide, a movement is growing to eliminate bail money entirely. Even Kumer spoke in support of that idea.
“Studies have shown that people who get released on cash bonds or released on no cash bond, there’s no difference in terms of who shows up for court,” Kumer says. “It really doesn’t matter.”
The 30 women who were being held on Mother’s Day had been denied bail due to the particulars of their cases, he says. Not because they didn’t have enough money.
There are those who pose a danger who should not be out on bond, Kumer explains, sitting in his office in the same building on Avon Street where now-convicted serial killer Jesse Matthew was held pending trial.
“I mean let’s face it, we have had some pretty heinous crimes come through Charlottesville,” he says. “Serial rapists, serial murderers. [Jesse Matthew], people wouldn’t have thought that he was a danger to society until he was caught. But when we look back on things he had done and things we think he has done, would you want him back out on the street?”
Kumer also thinks that Charlottesville and Albemarle County’s judges and prosecutors are already working to prevent the jail from being used as a debtors’ prison.
Charlottesville allows most of those arrested to be released on a signature bond without putting up any money, says Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Joe Platania. “We do not use secured bonds in this community as a general rule,” he says. “Poor people in jail because they can’t post bond—it is rare.”
“That we don’t have a lot of people sitting here who can’t afford to pay bonds shows that our local judges and commonwealth’s attorneys, what discretion they do have, they are using it to ensure that people who don’t need to be in jail aren’t in jail,” Kumer says.
“If more speeders, businessmen, got held in jail for two weeks, you’d have a [state level] policy change,” Williamson says. “But because it is people who have very little voice and who are very worried about risking everything they have if they raise their voice, it’s up to people like me to do a little noise-making.”