Black Woman’s Burden: Set Ashley Stewart Free
By Lisa Sharon Harper
Lauren Weeks stood with her cell phone pressed to her ear—mind frozen, jaw dangling—when she received a phone call on November 30, 2017 alerting her that her niece, Ashley Stewart, 24 year-old local model and dancer who dreamt of becoming a dental hygienist, had been arrested in Middlesex County. Ashley was in jail.
Ashley Stewart, has passed two birthdays over 18 months behind bars without a trial. New Jersey is a No Bail state and Ashley received the lowest possible score in the state’s assessment of her risk to the community or risk of flight. Yet, the detaining judge remanded her to Middlesex County Adult Correctional Facility in December 2017 where she has languished ever since.
Ashley’s aunt, Lauren, helped to raise Ashley and maintains contact with her through weekly calls from jail. In full disclosure, Lauren is also my cousin. She told me in a recent interview: “Ashley told me the bail judge said in court: ‘If [Ashley] wants to hang out with animals, then she can be locked up with animals.’”
The January 2017 New Jersey Criminal Justice Reform Act was passed into law through a non-partisan effort to decriminalize poverty in New Jersey’s pre-trial justice system. The Drug Policy Alliance found that 12 percent of all jailed people in New Jersey were being held because they could not come up with $2500 or less in bail. In the United States, everyone is innocent until proven guilty, but in New Jersey’s old system poor people, mostly Black, were treated as if they were guilty before proven guilty. They were locked up, often for years, before a trial decided their guilt or innocence. The Criminal Justice Reform Act eliminated the money bail system. Now, according to state law, all defendants, other than those facing life imprisonment, are entitled to the presumption of release.
A report from the New Jersey Administrative Office of the Courts found in April 2019 that bail reform has led to a 40 percent drop in New Jersey jail population from 2012 levels. The report adds crime rates have not risen, though detractors said they would.
To boot, a 2016 report by The Sentencing Project found New Jersey ranks worst in the nation regarding racial disparity in incarceration rates. The national ratio of black:white imprisonment is 6:1. In New Jersey, it is 12:1. People of African descent are 12 times more likely to be incarcerated than whites in New Jersey.
Likewise, while black and white young people commit crimes at the same rates, young people of African descent in New Jersey are 30 times more likely to be incarcerated than white young people, according to a The Sentencing Project report issued two and a half months before Ashley’s arrest in 2017. Note, New Jersey’s disparity more than doubles the next most egregious state—Wisconsin, where the Black to White incarceration ratio is 15:1. For context, Mississippi’s ratio is 4:1 while Alabama’s and South Carolina’s ratios are both about 3:1.
On a recent call to brief New Jersey faith leaders on Ashley’s case, Rev. Dr. Charles Boyer, pastor of Bethel AME Church in Woodbury, New Jersey and founder of Salvation and Social Justice, the faith coalition that pushed for bail reform, said the Judge’s statement about Ashley’s detainment is indication of the racial animus still present in New Jersey’s justice system.
“It reveals a concept of young people of color as animals who need to be caged,” Rev. Dr. Boyer said, “rather than young people who made a bad decision, have particular proximity to a situation, or who may have been traumatized at some point in their lives and need help.”
When gender is added to the equation Black women bear an extra burden. While women rarely lead drug trafficking efforts, they often do time based on the criminal acts of their male partners. The Brennan Center reported in July 2017 that overly broad conspiracy and accomplice laws demand “that anyone caught in proximity to a known drug trafficker suffer similar consequences.” The report explains: “These laws have helped ensnare women who were only minimally involved in criminal drug activity themselves.”
On November 30, 2017, Ashley and five other defendants—all men, including her boyfriend—were charged with armed robbery, theft, possession of a weapon for unlawful purpose, stolen vehicle, robbing a BP with a .45 caliber handgun, possession of a controlled substance and sale in a school zone. All of the charges took place over three separate dates from September to November 2017.
But, presiding Judge Diane Pincus, recently found that video and GPS evidence contradicted testimony provided by arresting officers in pursuit of the arrest warrants. As a result, alleged evidence found in the car of one of the defendants was tossed out, according to Aunt Lauren, who has attended every hearing except the initial remand or release hearing.
Aunt Lauren also explained to me in a recent interview that prosecutors had provided absolutely no physical evidence of Ashley’s connection to the crimes for which she has served 18 months.
The legal limit for Ashley’s detainment without trial will be reached this Friday. Prosecutors have appealed Judge Pincus’s decision to the New Jersey Appellate Court—a process that could take another 18 months. Two questions hang in the balance this week: First, due to Ashley’s low risk of danger or flight and lack of previous arrest, will the presiding court correct the remanding judge’s error and follow the requirements of New Jersey Law? Will they release Ashley pending trial? Second, will the citizens of New Jersey, the state where I was raised, recognize the hinge-point they approach in their criminal justice history? Will they consider Ashley’s case and see this opportunity to correct the racial and gender biases that are still wreaking havoc on the lives of Black people, particularly Black women? Will they choose to see us—Black people, Black women—as equally worthy of protection of the law?
Lisa Sharon Harper is founder and president of Freedom Road, LLC, popular author of several books, including The Very Good Gospel: How Everything Wrong Can Be Made Right, and an Auburn Senior Fellow.