Marbre Stahly-Butts is the executive director of the Law for Black Lives organization and founding member of National Bail Out (NBO), a Black-led collective seeking to end systems of pretrial detention and mass incarceration. She recently sat down with EBONY to discuss the #FreeBlackMamas initiative, which works to raise funds to bail Black mothers out of “cages.”
The current conversation about mass incarceration and the effect of cash bail is usually told from the male perspective. Stahly-Butts and the NBO is using its initiative to include the Black female caregiver.
The “radical” lawyer has played a critical role in helping to create policy recommendations to remedy the bail crisis and, for the past three years, has led the legal counsel service program for the mothers seeking bailouts. Her own interest in pursuing a legal career came after witnessing her father fall victim to the criminal justice system because of substance-abuse issues.
“When I was 10 or 11 years old, my dad was arrested for drug-related offenses,” she revealed. “[He] was struggling at that point with addiction like lots of my family members and folks throughout the country.”
Her father was arrested, and Stahly-Butts said she vividly remembers the courtroom. “There were almost no Black folks except for [those] who were defendants,” she recalled. “There were White lawyers and judges making decisions about my family’s life who didn’t know my dad, and who didn’t understand that he was more than what he used or the mistake he made.”
After becoming a lawyer, she realized the system was built to “legitimize the incarceration of [African-American] people” and decided to focus on how to change policy. In 2014, during the Ferguson, Missouri protests in the wake of the killing of Mike Brown, various women who put their bodies on the line inspired her to use legal tools to push for reform including #FreeBlackMamas, which is in its third year.
“The idea is that we bail out as many Black mamas as we can across the country,” Stahly-Butts said. “We bring them home to be with their families, where we think they belong on Mother’s Day. That is meant to rise awareness about the impact of these systems on our families, femmes and the trans [community.] And the impact it has when you take a mother or a caregiver out of a home, not just for their children and loved ones, but for the whole block and community.”
Those freed mothers are also enrolled in a fellowship and given employment opportunities to support their growth. In addition, the NBO works with groups across the country on other services.
“We’ve spent $250,000 on supportive services [including] housing, mental health treatment, drug treatment to make sure whoever we bail out we’re not just leaving. We’re really holding them through a process to keep this system that keeps on dragging folks in who are in crisis,” Stahly-Butts added.
According to the lawyer, the has been a 700-percent increase in the number of women incarcerated in the United States within the past 25 years. Black women make up 30 percent of prison population despite only being 12 percent of the US population.
Most of the women locked up are on pretrial detention, which means they’ve not yet to be found guilty of any crime, and can’t afford their bail. Many of them are also victims of sexual abuse and have been accused of nonviolent offenses such as trespassing, suspended licenses or drug-related crimes.
The NBO is bringing awareness of how the criminal justice system is rooted in racism that aligns with “chattel slavery” and how Black people generally are not offered rehabilitation for their traumatic experiences.
Stahly-Butts believes “awareness” is one of the key factors in facilitating change in our communities. You can learn more about and donate to #FreeBlackMamas at nationalbailout.org.