New group antes up cash to help poor make bail

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Devi Davis and April Angermeier are challenging the cash bail system that keeps poor people awaiting trial locked up in Marion County jails, often putting their jobs and homes at risk.

Since mid-January, the pair has bailed out 170 men and women from Marion County jails through a new not-for-profit called The Bail Project, which recently expanded to Indianapolis and about a dozen other U.S. cities after starting a decade ago in New York City.

The primary work of The Bail Project is to use charitable donations to post bail for people stuck in jail only because of their inability to pay. In all the cases The Bail Project works on, a judge has said the accused are allowed to return home to await trial as long as they pay the bail, which essentially is a refundable deposit to make sure someone returns to court. That bail, which runs from hundreds of dollars into the thousands, is returned to the group’s revolving fund once the case is over.

Criminal justice reform advocates say the current bail system creates a two-tiered justice system: one for the affluent and another for the poor. People with disposable income often can quickly pay bail, go home, keep their jobs, and resume their normal lives while they await their day in court.

But people without the ability to bail themselves out face tough decisions: They end up sitting in jail for days, weeks or months, putting their jobs and homes at risk. Or they plead guilty to lesser crimes so they can go home—and end up with a criminal record they might have avoided.

“What we provide is the opportunity for them to fight their case from a position of freedom,” said Davis, who has more than 20 years of experience working inside Indiana’s court system, including in setting bail in Marion County jails. “The only reason they’re sitting there is money.

“I don’t think people understand the impact even a few days in jail has on a human life and their entire family. They can lose everything: their home, their children, their job. It’s so difficult to get back on the right track.”

Indianapolis resident Mike Maloy, 25, said The Bail Project bailed him out when he was charged with domestic battery early this year. The case eventually was dismissed, but he said he spent at least five weeks in jail. Getting out allowed him to more easily work on the case with his lawyer.

“It was almost like a miracle,” Maloy said. “It was hard while I was incarcerated. If I would have stayed incarcerated, it probably would have been prolonged or a plea might have been involved. It was my only hope of survival for winning this case.”

“They can't save the world, but I think what they’re doing is saving a lot of people’s lives," he said.

The ultimate goal of The Bail Project, which is based in California, is to reduce mass incarceration by reducing the number of people in jail awaiting trial. A 2019 report by the Prison Policy Initiative found that, of the roughly 621,000 people held in jails for local authorities, about three-quarters, or 462,000, have not been convicted of a crime.

About 2,500 people are held in Marion County’s three jails on any given day, with 85 percent awaiting trial, according to Lena Hackett of the Marion County Re-Entry Coalition.

Read the full story online here and in the July 11 Indianapolis Business Journal.

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