“Your whole family is locked up when a mother is locked up,” says Lavette Mayes.
Chicago Foundation for Women grantee Chicago Community Bond Fund (CCBF) operates a fund for people charged with crimes in Cook County who cannot afford to pay bail, while advocating for the end of the money bail system. The Fund prioritizes assistance for those most likely to experience trauma while incarcerated, including Black women and mothers.
Lavette had never been to jail before. 46 years old and a mother of two, she found herself in Cook County Jail in 2015 after an altercation with her mother-in-law, the byproduct of an ongoing divorce.
Despite no previous record, Lavette’s bond was set at $250,000. Standing in the courtroom for her pre-trial detention hearing, Lavette describes feeling “like I was in an auction.” With her family unable to afford the $25,000 needed to free her, Lavette remained in Cook County Jail for fourteen months.
During her fourteen month pretrial incarceration, Lavette was forced to spend down her family’s savings on legal fees, attempting to keep her small business afloat and keeping her home. “Jail isn’t free,” Lavette adds. The costs of maintaining life inside and outside of the jail eventually became too much, and Lavette lost her business and her home. Still in the midst of divorce proceedings, Lavette nearly lost custody of her children. The remainder of her savings were used to supplement $5,000 contributed by CCBF to pay her bail, which was eventually reduced to $9,500.
Since December 2015, CCBF has posted more than $900,000 in bond for over 160 people.
With just three full-time staff members and a volunteer network of over 70, Chicago Community Bond Fund is small but mighty. While the revolving bond fund addresses immediate needs, CCBF advocates for an end to a money bail system, “where wealth, not safety, is the primary determinant of whether someone is released while awaiting trial.”
In 2017, efforts by CCBF and the Coalition to End Money Bond resulted in a court order limiting the use of money bond in Cook County and subsequently decreasing the jail’s population by 1,400 people, including an 18% decrease in the number of women incarcerated before trial due to their inability to pay money bond.
The effects of pretrial incarceration continued after Lavette was released. While under electronic monitoring, Lavette wasn’t able to leave the house to work, or even take her children to school.
“The system traumatizes your kids, your family, your community,” she says. Her children became anxious whenever she left the house, worried Lavette wouldn’t return from her court dates. Lavette ultimately accepted a plea deal to avoid the stress on her children and additional costs of an ongoing court case. Now with a felony conviction, Lavette struggled to find a job and is ineligible for public housing – Lavette and her two children make do in a one-bedroom apartment. “I paid my debt, but it continues to haunt me,” Lavette says.
This year, Lavette joined Chicago Community Bond Fund part-time as an Advocate. “I wanted people to see the injustice and how bond reform is important,” she says. “Other women can’t speak out – I can be that voice.”