In this guest blog, MediaJustice Network member, Angela Henderson of Southerners on New Ground (SONG) explores the impact of pretrial risk assessment tools on Black and brown people’s freedom.
It’s just before midnight one Saturday evening when Netta Hall, a Black mother of eight, discovers that a judicial magistrate (essentially, a lower-level judge) has set a staggering bond of $55,000 for minor theft while on probation. That night, two members of Southerners on New Ground (SONG) observed her bail hearing as a part of the chapter’s local court-watching initiative to monitor the magistrates’ adherence to a recent bail reform measure. In particular, they closely watched and documented the magistrate’s implementation of a pretrial risk assessment tool (RAT).
Like many 21st Century courts, Nashville outsources human interaction and dignity to tools of e-carceration. However in Netta’s case, the magistrate didn’t even bother videoconferencing Netta before setting her bail, so we could not observe him taking into account her ten year residence in the community, her strong family support network, or her steady employment as a certified nursing assistant as factors that should increase her eligibility for pretrial release. The magistrate did not consider her financial needs or ability to pay bail either. Instead, without ever meeting her, virtually or in person, the magistrate considered her prior conviction history, her probation status, and the biased perspective of the arresting officer. By the cold calculations of the magistrate on duty and the risk assessment tool guiding his decision, Netta qualified not as a beloved community member, but as a risk. Until she could pay bail or resolve her case, she would remain in a cage.
Nashville joins chapters of Southerners on New Ground across the Southeast in our campaign to #EndMoneyBail and Pretrial Detention. As an abolitionist organization, we are opposed to bail reform measures that further entrench systematic oppression and exploitation of our people: Black, Brown, and LGBTQ+ communities in the South. We fight for abolition, because we know that a system built around harming and dehumanizing us cannot truly reform itself.
“Bail reform” in Nashville arrived in late 2017 in the form of a new pretrial process that requires magistrates use a pretrial release RAT to recommend an individual be released on their own recognizance, released through pretrial services, or given a secured or unsecured bond. Because SONG knows that the carceral system reshapes even the best-intentioned reforms into new means to cage our people, we started our campaign by investigating the impact of this new process for ourselves. SONG Nashville members conducted a two month courtwatching study to monitor the adherence to and implementation of this process in the Davidson County Night Court. We launched Nashville’s #EndMoneyBail campaign by releasing a report of our findings, analysis of what this means for our people, and stories of how the system and its tools were furthering mass incarceration and discrimination in Nashville. We found that judicial magistrates set money bail 93% of the time despite the intended reforms, confirming our suspicion that the courts were failing to meet the most minimal of improvement standards. The role of RATs as a false solution to the injustice of money bail and pretrial detention reflects what organizers, advocates, and communities nationwide are learning: racist, biased technology cannot be expected to “reform” racist, biased carceral systems.
Through court-watching, the Black Mama’s Bail Out Actions, and our personal experiences, SONG Nashville members have witnessed firsthand the devastating impacts of the money bail system. We have seen people in the Davidson County Jail facilities unable to buy their freedom for amounts as little as $150, including a woman in her seventies who was arrested for trespassing for refusing to leave the hospital. Increasingly, we are concerned that it’s our people who are truly at risk when their lives are subject to a RAT’s calculations. Of particular concern are how the Nashville RAT determines the “risks” of “Failure to Appear” (FTA) and “New Criminal Arrest” (NCA). We see these as respectively leaning toward greater reliance on profitable GPS monitoring and other forms of e-carceration on the one hand and no pretrial release on the other. These classifications do nothing to meet the needs for people getting back to court or for addressing the root causes of why they were arrested. In SONG’s #EndMoneyBail campaigns across the South, we know that RATs and related e-carceration technology threaten rather than advance any meaningful bail reform. Through the bailouts, we have demonstrated how only the power of community serves to keep people out of cages. Court date reminders, transportation to court, and childcare are important starts as are rides to doctor’s appointments, counseling, and housing assistance. Above all, our people need deep love and care for their lives to be truly free and safe from the carceral system and its technologies.
SONG Nashville is demanding that judges and magistrates put an end to the practice of money bail and pretrial detention in our city. Risk assessment tools are an individualized approach to a systematic problem; they will routinely fail as a response to the crisis created by money bail and pretrial detention. We must seek to build a world without the money bail system, without pretrial detention, without incarceration of any kind. Our work to build a world without jails and prisons in Nashville can only get stronger through the research, data, and resources presented by Media Mobilizing Project and MediaJustice’s new website, “Mapping Pretrial Injustice”. We see the launch of this online database and accompanying launch webinar as a key opportunity to equip our fight against statewide bail reform trends that rely on risk assessments with crucial information. Equipped with a deepened understanding of how RATs work and precise analysis of their impact as a false reform, we can insist upon bolder solutions that emerge from the community, not e-carceration technology. Across the region, this website will fortify SONG’s collective political education, our campaign strategy, and our ability to shift targets who have the power to end money bail in policy and in practice.
For nine days, Netta sat in a cage. She risked losing her income [she did]; she risked losing her job [she did]; she risked having to split up her children [she did]; she risked facing eviction [she did], she risked losing her home [she did]; she risked damage to her emotional and psychological well-being [she did]. And the list goes on. By the time Netta’s community came up with the money to pay a bondsman enough free her in time for Mother’s Day, she walked out of jail with a greater risk assessment score than when she went in. The RAT that kept her caged fulfilled its own dehumanizing projections by keeping her from her community, her family, her life. What is the real threat to public safety? What is the true risk?
Our people are not risks. Our people are not subjects to be monitored. Our people are not opportunities for profit. Our people are worthy of so much more.
We call on community members, organizers, lawyers, advocates, and anyone else invested in the fight against risk assessment tools to uplift and invest in the community in our efforts to seek solutions. On February 6 at 3pm EST, we invite you to join us for the webinar launching this new online resource where SONG organizers will join allies across the country in discussing the many ways this new site will strengthen our work toward liberating our people.
We also invite you to support our local #EndMoneyBail campaign by signing our petition demanding Nashville judges and magistrates end the real risks to our community: money bail and pretrial detention.
Angela Henderson is an abolitionist-minded, saxophone-playing socialist, and lifelong student of Black radical traditions hoping to live the life she plays about. Growing up in the suburbs of Nashville, TN, classism, miseducation, and isolation characterized her experience as a young Black person. In the spring of 2018, SONG welcomed her into a new political home, where she has worked as a member, Lorde’s Werq participant, and Base-Building Fellow for the Nashville chapter. Now, she strongly believes that the only way to restore our humanity, our intellectual and imaginative rigor, and a dignified future is to commit to struggle. For this reason, Angela is compelled to seek truth through honest, anti-imperialist political education and to apply this knowledge towards the ongoing liberation and healing efforts of her communities.
When it comes to her people–Black people, Queer and Trans folks, caregivers, nerds, children brought up in movement, organizers by name and organizers by practice, artists, formerly and currently incarcerated loved ones, and elementary school teachers — Angela is a commitment to recognition of the brilliance, of the joy, of the sacred, and of the collective capacity to transform.