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A Small Step

Just a day before Mother’s Day, single mother Tiara Howlett was separated from her five children after being charged with battery following a dispute with a former roommate. Notwithstanding her claim that she’s innocent and not a threat to society, her bail was set at $3,000 — an amount she simply could not afford.

“It was hard because that was the first Mother's Day I've been without my children,” says Howlett, who attended a panel discussion on criminal justice reform at Victory Baptist Church on Monday.

While it seemed inevitable that she would remain displaced from her family until her fate is decided in court on May 29, a recently formed activist group decided to reunite the 34-year-old mother with her children.

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The Vegas Freedom Fund — a coalition of activist groups including Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada’s Action Fund and All Shades United — bailed out Howlett on May 18. Leslie Turner, a community organizer for the Mass Liberation Project, formed the Vegas Freedom Fund to help bail out people charged with low-level offenses so they can be reunited with their families, as well as help provide guidance following their release. She hopes the fund will eventually help abolish the state’s cash bail system.

“We built this coalition based on the need of the community to really take a look at bail reform,” Turner says. “We started doing our own research and seeing that there's so many people sitting jail for the most petty crimes.”

The Vegas Freedom Fund’s mission is personal for Turner, who was briefly incarcerated over an unpaid traffic ticket shortly after the premature birth of her son. “I was very distraught," she says. “I wasn't a criminal, I just didn't have the money."

As of 2015, the average national median for bail was around $10,000, while the median annual income for people incarcerated was around $15,000, according to the Vera Institute of Justice. In Las Vegas as of Monday, 514 people were being held on bail of $5,000 or less, according to Public Defender Phil Kohn.

The Vegas Freedom Fund launched with a fundraising campaign in March. Through a series of fundraisers, the group raised $4,200 and used it to bail out Howlett. “She was a single mom, she needed to get out and back home to her kids,” Turner says.

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Now that Howlett is out of jail, her next challenges are fighting her battery charge in court and finding a job. Although she graduated with a degree in medical administration in December, she has struggled to find stable work because of a prior battery conviction 14 years ago. “Even without a college degree you can find a job ... but when you have a record it’s 10 times harder,” Howlett says.

Similar bailout funds have been successful elsewhere, including the National Bailout Fund, which has raised more than $1 million to bail out some 200 people across the country.

While the idea of reforming the state’s cash bail system has recently gained traction, significant legislative change has yet to occur.

Last year, the Nevada Assembly and Senate both passed Assembly Bill 136, which would have required a court to decide if nonfinancial conditions could be placed on a person to lower the risk of failing to appear in court. The bill also would have allowed the court to use an evidence-based risk-assessment tool to determine if there’s reasonable cause to release someone without bail. Gov. Brian Sandoval vetoed the bill, citing concerns that it would not be able to balance justice with public safety.

Despite the bill’s failure, the work done so far by the Vegas Freedom Fund has caught the attention of some local lawmakers seeking criminal-justice reform, including Democratic State Sen. Tick Segerblom.

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"It's fantastic what (the Vegas Freedom Fund) is doing, but at the end of the day they shouldn't have to bail out anybody,” says Segerblom, who voted for AB 136. “If you're not a threat to society, then you shouldn't have to pay money to get out of jail."

“Somebody’s gotta stand up and say, ‘We're ending cash bail now,’ even if it’s a shock to everybody's system,” District Attorney candidate Robert Langford, a Democrat, said to a round of applause during Monday's panel.

While legislative action toward reforming the cash bail system is null, the Vegas Freedom Fund plans to take more bailout referrals case-by-case as a revolving bail fund. “It’s ongoing to address the disparities with bail here until we’re able to end cash bail,” Turner says.