Asia Johnson calls herself a "bail disruptor."
It's a title she's proud of. In her work with The Bail Project, a national nonprofit working toward ending mass incarceration, Johnson has helped a lot of people who have not been convicted of a crime to get released from Wayne County's jails.
Many of those people are fathers. The rate of incarceration of males in 2017 was six times that of females in the United States, which means a lot of fathers are in jail.
The Bail Project, which launched in Detroit in June of 2018, posts bond for people who cannot afford to pay. So far, Johnson and her colleagues have bailed out a total of 199 people. Of those, 72 are fathers. When fathers (and mothers) are jailed, families suffer, says Johnson. Ten percent of children in Michigan have had a parent in jail or prison. And Black children are seven times more likely than white children to have had an incarcerated parent.
Photo by Nina Ignaczak.
That's why The Bail Project, which is housed within the Detroit Justice Center, celebrated fathers in a special event at Focus: Hope on Saturday, June 15. Each one of the fathers in the room would most likely be spending the day in a cell, away from their families, were it not for the program.
As a returning citizen herself, Johnson knows the challenges of navigating the criminal justice system firsthand. She spent nine years in the prison system for her crime. In that time, she met women whose families, lives, and spirits were broken by mass incarceration and their inability to afford bond as they waited out the lengthy trial process. Johnson became weary of seeing women take their own lives. "I believe there is a better way of having someone suffer the consequences of their crime than caging them," she says. "I truly believe that cages are for animals, not human beings, and especially not for people who have not even been convicted of a crime."
Johnson points to the lack of access to mental health treatment in the community and in prison as one of the main drivers of mass incarceration. Before committing her crime, she recalls knowing something was wrong, but a combination of a lack of access to mental health care and the stigma of mental illness prevented her from getting help.
Still, Johnson says, she was one of the lucky ones; after her conviction, she spent 18 months in a psychiatric facility where she finally got the help she needed. She then served out the remainder of her sentence in a women's prison. After she got out, she was determined to use her experience to help others.
"While I was inside, this fire was kindled inside of me to help eradicate a system that is broken," she says. "When you think about it, somebody is sitting in jail solely because they can't afford to get out."
In 2017, about two-thirds of incarcerated individuals in county and city jails nationwide had not been convicted of a crime and were awaiting court action on a charge; similar numbers were reported for Wayne County's jails. The percentage of people of color who are jailed is disproportionately high; 70 percent of Wayne County's inmates are Black, compared to 40 percent of the county's overall population.
Unaffordable bail is a major driver of those numbers, according to Johnson. So her aim is to disrupt that process before it starts.
"If we can get people out of jail before they even hit prison, that is going to put a dent in mass incarceration," she says. "It's going to help people be able to defend themselves better. And they are not in jeopardy of losing their jobs, losing their homes, and losing their families."
Christopher Pittman and his wife, Abigail Pittman, would have been separated on Father's Day had it not been for the program. When Pittman was arrested on May 28 over a custody dispute with his former partner, he could not afford his $1,500 bond and knew his job was in jeopardy. It was the first time he had ever been incarcerated. A Wayne County correctional officer gave Pittman information about The Bail Project, and Abigail went to their offices to ask for help. That's when she met Johnson.
Christopher and Abigail Pittman. Photo by Nina Ignaczak.
"When I saw the look on her face, I knew that something was wrong and that I needed to help," says Johnson. "She explained the story that he was in jail and she couldn't afford to post his bond, and I got him out that day."
If not for Johnson's help, Christopher says, "I would still be in there and I would have to go through trial from the inside. And it most definitely did save my employment."
Not everyone is in favor of bail reform. Critics have included members of law enforcement, victim advocates, and, unsurprisingly, the bail bond industry, which stands to be destroyed if cash bail goes away. But data has shown that recidivism has not gone up in areas that have done away with cash bail. It appears to be a bipartisan issue. The conservative Mackinac Center released a paper in 2018 advocating for bail reform. And in March a bipartisan group of legislators introduced a bail reform legislation package.
Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy emphasizes caution.
“I am more than willing to meet with all stakeholders in the criminal justice system to discuss this issue and come up with solutions. Obviously, prosecutors as the gatekeepers must be at the table. We currently have a very long list of defendants who have been granted and made bond that did not return to court," says Worthy. "There must also be resources to make sure they are apprehended and returned to court.
"Victims seem to be an afterthought these days and they deserve justice as well, and should not continue to be victimized. I have been a proponent for years for judges to do comprehensive, thoughtful, and thorough review before any bond decision is announced," she adds. "This is not being done for very dangerous defendants nor for those who are not a danger to the public and could be trusted to return to court.”
Since launching in Detroit, the project has paid more than $300,000 in bail for low-income residents, according to Camilo Ramirez, the program's director of communications.
"The program also provides its clients with ongoing pretrial support in the form of court notifications, transportation assistance, and referrals to social services and community partners," says Ramirez.
Festive tables were labeled with the names of prominent social activists such as Angela Davis. Photo by Nina Ignaczak.
According to Ramirez, The Bail Project, which operates in 14 locations, selected Detroit based on racial disparities in pretrial incarceration and bail reform efforts in the state.
"Our ultimate goal is to steer entire jurisdictions away from cash bail and incarceration and towards release on recognizance and investment in adequate court notifications, social services, and community-based solutions," he says.
The project does not discriminate based on charge, says Johnson. It sets a ceiling of $5,000 and evaluates each case on the potential client's history of making court appearances and ability to remain in contact with the program through to trial. Once the bond is recovered, money flows back into the revolving fund to help bail out the next person.
As angry as Johnson is about the injustice she witnesses on a daily basis, she says her work as a "bail disruptor" gives her hope.
"When I see clients like Chris and Abigail, I know that it is worth the fight," she says. "The fact that they are here today and he's celebrating being a father and I got to bring him back home to his family. It just means the world to me."