University of Minnesota student takes on injustices in the bail system

Freedom Fund nonprofit aims to level the playing field by helping low-income people in Minnesota post bail.

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LEILA NAVIDI, STAR TRIBUNE

U student Simon Cecil, right, laughed when David Stribling told him his name “sounds like a senator name.” Cecil had posted Stribling’s $50 bail as part of a larger effort to help lower-income people, and, eventually, improve the entire system.

Simon Cecil sat on a metal stoop at the Hennepin County jail’s exit, studying a mug shot of a man he’s never met but just paid $50 to bail out.

Mug shots rarely capture a flattering likeness, and Cecil has learned that calculating the time it takes to discharge someone from jail is a science of educated guessing, so he stares at every face moving to the door, looking for David Stribling. After about half an hour, Cecil spots a guy who might be Stribling, but when he approaches, the stranger shakes his head and asks for a cigarette.

Another hour creeps by and a goateed man emerges wearing a brown flannel shirt and carrying a paper bag. This looks even more like Cecil’s man, but he’s wearing a dark hat that makes it hard to say for sure.

“Mr. Stribling?” Cecil asks. The man nods in the affirmative, and Cecil tells him he’s the one who posted his bail.

“Why did you do that?” Stribling asks cheerfully, an unlit cigarette hanging from his lips.

Cecil has this part down to a tight 30 seconds: I work for a nonprofit called the Minnesota Freedom Fund. We post small-amount bails for people who can’t afford to. All we ask is that you show up for your next court date.

“I’ll definitely show up to court,” Stribling promises of his citation for violating a no-contact order. He studies the business card he’s just been handed. “Simon Cecil,” he reads aloud. “It sounds like a senator name.”

Cecil is not a senator, but a 34-year-old University of Minnesota student readying to graduate with dual master’s degrees in business and public policy. Cecil started the Freedom Fund last fall, a so-called “bail fund” that mirrors similar efforts in places like New York City and Chicago.

If someone is held on a bond under $1,000 and doesn’t have the resources to post, Cecil will bail him or her out. As long as the defendant shows up for court, the money goes back to the fund. So far, all but two have made good on that promise.

The success of the fund is already gaining traction with others in the criminal justice system. A group that includes Hennepin County judges, defense attorneys and community organizers has been meeting since November with the goal of starting a larger-scale fund that could expand to more people and more counties.

Yet their endeavor goes beyond just posting bond. The group believes Minnesota’s bail system is fundamentally broken. And to truly solve that, they acknowledge, is going to be much trickier.

The evolution of bail

Contrary to the conventional wisdom of prime-time television dramas, the American bail system was not invented as a means of criminal punishment. Rather, bail is a contract designed to incentivize people to return to court after being accused of a crime, when they are still presumed innocent.

When someone is arrested, the court assesses the person’s risk of not returning. The judge also weighs the potential threat to public safety. In rare circumstances the person must remain in jail until the outcome of the case. In other cases, a judge will determine a defendant poses such little flight risk or community threat, the person can simply go free on their promise to return.

The third option is that the court will conditionally release the individual. If the condition is money, this is called a “bond.” As the bail system has transmutated over the centuries, this is where reformers say it has gone very wrong.

The Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution prohibits “excessive” bail. Yet 34 percent of Americans charged with crimes linger in jail pretrial for no other reason than they can’t afford to pay, according to a 2016 report by the Harvard Law School. Most of these people come from poverty. In Hennepin County, defendants regularly sit in jail on low-cash bails they can’t afford.

“I’ve even seen some $10 bails,” said Hennepin County Judge Bridget Sullivan. “And people are just sitting in jail because they can’t make this really low bail.”

Making bail can be the difference between guilty or innocent. The Harvard study cited that defendants stuck in jail were 25 percent more likely to plead guilty than someone who’s been released.

“It isn’t fair that simply because a person can post bail they’re going to get a different resolution than a person who has to stay in jail,” said Chief Hennepin County Public Defender Mary Moriarty. “What that means is that people who can afford it get better justice than poor people.”

This disproportionate impact on the poor is the core driver in a wave of bail reform happening in America. New Jersey is the latest state to upend its bail system, implementing a nuanced screening process this year that reshuffles bond as a last resort.

Minnesota has so far been quiet in this national conversation. But behind the scenes, efforts like Cecil’s Freedom Fund are driving toward changing the system.

The Freedom Fund is one of about 10 such bail funds in the country, said Cherise Fanno Burdeen, executive director of Maryland-based Pretrial Justice Institute.

Burdeen calls these funds a manifestation of frustration with bail — a workaround of the system rather than a cure. But as reforms continue to take hold around the nation, Burdeen said, bigger changes may be on the horizon.

“By the end of this year we’ll be at a tipping point where there’s no going back,” she said.

The business of bail

Cecil now spends long days and nights waiting in the jail lobby to bail people out. But he once found himself on the other side of this equation.

In 2008, he’d been certified as an EMT, and attended the Republican National Convention to provide medical aid to demonstrators. Police picked him up in a mass arrest and he spent two days in the Ramsey County jail before a friend bailed him out for $200. Prosecutors ultimately dropped the unlawful assembly charge, and Cecil and others unsuccessfully sued the city for the arrest.

Cecil’s experience as a social activist helped shape his belief that something was systematically failing in Minnesota’s criminal justice system. About a year ago, with the help of his classmate, Adam Rao, Cecil pitched the idea for a bail fund to a program through the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management, which gives seed money to students with innovative start-up proposals. The school awarded him $5,000, and he won another $5,000 through a business competition called the “Acara Challenge,” which also helps fund creative projects with real-world potential.

With $10,000 in the bank, Minnesota Freedom Fund was in business.

For clients, Cecil turned to defense attorneys, and he’s set up a deal in which public defenders send him names of defendants who are stuck in jail with small-amount bails.

Cecil quickly learned that posting bond can be more complicated than simply paying the fee. He usually arrives to the jail at night, and sits in the lobby for up to five hours waiting for the person to be released. He never knows whom he’s bailing out, so he buys a $1 mug shot when he arrives. Sometimes the person has outstanding warrants or probation issues, which can delay the process. Bail also requires exact change — cash only — and bailiffs frequently send him to make change at the nearby light rail pay station.

Cecil said he’s been frustrated to see bails that don’t appear to relate to motivating the person to return to court or public safety. He frequently sees bail set at $78, the exact amount of the surcharge for court fees in Hennepin County.

“That’s not about likelihood to return, that’s not about threat to the community,” he said.

Though Moriarty casts the bail fund as merely a “Band-Aid,” she said the fund is already making a difference. She said clients who can’t afford bail often take deals offered by prosecutors where they agree to plead guilty for a penalty of “time served” — meaning the time they’ve already spent in jail — instead of trying to fight it. This gets them out of jail, but creates a criminal record that could come back to haunt them.

The bail fund has allowed defendants options, Moriarty said. In one instance, prosecutors dropped charges before a case went to trial. In another, a client suffering from a mental breakdown was able to get psychological help — admitted to the Hennepin County Medical Center’s Acute Psychological Unit for a 72-hour lockdown — instead of languishing in jail, where her mental condition may not have been properly treated. One person was able get out of jail and show up for work, and otherwise may have lost his job.

When Cecil first launched the fund, he set out to post bail for at least 10 people, he said. But “once we hit 10 and it was working we just kept going.”

As of publication, he’s bailed out 33 people.

Building better bail

Judge Sullivan witnessed bail system’s disproportionate impact on low-income people in her first year on the bench. As a new judge, the court assigned her to the misdemeanor calendar, where she presided daily over a revolving line of low-level crime cases.

“Oh my God,” she remembers thinking. “There are people here with $50 bail and they can’t post. And they’re just sitting in jail.”

Sullivan had read about bail funds in other major cities, and wondered if something like it existed in Minneapolis. Last fall, she and another judge contacted Michael Friedman, director of Legal Rights Center, a nonprofit, advocacy-driven law firm that works as an alternative to the public defender system.

Since November, Sullivan, Friedman and a group of others have been meeting at the Legal Rights Center trying to figure out how to build on Cecil’s idea. They hope to file for nonprofit status this year, and they’re talking to donors about securing more funding. Friedman said it’s still too early to say what will come of this, but they hope to create a deeper fund that could reach more low-income people in jail, possibly widening the scope to other county jails in the Twin Cities.

But the fund is just the first step — not the end game, said Friedman. “[We’re] creating an organization that wants to be out of business,” said Friedman. “We’re working on this bail fund, but the goal is: the entire conception of money bail is flawed.”

Don’t abolish bail in Md., fix it

Contrary to what advocates say, the Court of Appeals of Maryland — precipitated by Attorney General Brian Frosh‘s October 2016 letter stating that the state’s bail policy violates the constitutional bar on “excessive bail” — did not alter, change or “reform” bail practice. The court abolished it by fiat.

Now that the Maryland Legislative Black Caucus has endorsed inaction as its preferred course, allowing the abolition of bail in the state to go forward, it is clear that eliminating bail altogether (and by any means necessary) was always the end sought by bail critics. They never wanted to repair a dysfunctional system — they wanted it gone.

Now, under the new rules set to take effect July 1, bail must be set according to the defendant’s ability to pay or “afford” bail — a standard so low that all but a tiny fraction of the accused will be ineligible to post bond.

Instead, those awaiting trial will either be detained or released without a surety (or financial deposit commensurate with their risk to the community and likelihood of appearing at trial). Proponents of this new system call it “reform” and intend to address the inequities in current bail hearing outcomes that disproportionately impact communities of color and the poor in Maryland.

Release will still have conditions under a pretrial supervision regime that will operate like parole or probation for those that judicial officers deem appropriate. The problem is, pretrial conditions do not effectively ensure trial appearance.

As economists Eric Helland and Alexander Tabarrok found in 2004, in the most exhaustive peer-reviewed study of failure-to-appear (FTA) outcomes on bail, commercial bail is highly effective in reducing FTAs. Furthermore, bail bondsmen quickly and efficiently return fugitives to the authorities.

The reason is simple: Bail incentivizes trial appearance because those who post bail (the defendants or their loved ones) do not want to forfeit their funds or property if the defendant flees. Moreover, if the accused does become a fugitive, the bail bondsman has the right and a compelling interest to recover his investment by returning the defendant to justice.

Critics also charge bail is unfair and unconstitutional, but the facts belie this claim. In terms of fairness, the evidence is scant of any institutional bias against the poor built into the system — beyond anecdote and inference. In fact, state court rules prior to the Court of Appeals’ rules change specifically instruct court commissioners (who initially set bail) to consider the accused’s “family ties, employment status and history, [and] financial resources” in setting bond amounts.

Any bias is not in the code but in the application by human beings and jurisdictional disparities in bail setting, which is borne out by wide variations in bail outcomes across the state. Most, if not all, of bail’s impact on communities of color and the poor can be attributed to these differences. In other words, human bias, rather than policy, needs to be checked back.

On constitutionality, critics of bail charge the system has violated due process and the constitutional bar on excessive bail, but the grounding for this claim is specious at best. In the attorney general letter that set off the Court of Appeals ruling, the author cites the 1951 Stack v. Boyle U.S. Supreme Court case that examined the constitutionality of money bail.

The majority actually held that bail should not be set higher than “reasonably calculated” to assure the defendant’s appearance. The Frosh letter cites a concurring opinion, not the majority, in arguing for an affordability standard for bail, which does not have the weight of precedent.

Furthermore, a subsequent majority decision by the Supreme Court in Salerno v. United States in 1987 rejected challenges to detaining defendants before trial if public safety is threatened.

Together, Stack and Salerno affirm money bail’s legality and legitimacy if necessary to protect the public and ensure the accused’s appearance at trial. The Frosh letter even concedes this fact, writing: “no court has explicitly stated that there is a constitutional right to affordable bail.”

Bail, then, is constitutional, and the statute already allows for the “individualized assessment” that critics demand be conducted.

But the disparities and potential ineffectiveness of Maryland’s bail outcomes should not be ignored. Instead, real reform requires more data and accountability, including a deeper analysis of its effectiveness and efficiency as compared to alternatives like the algorithm-based risk assessment tool and pretrial supervision regimes (which both raise constitutional and bias issues of their own).

Under current law, court commissioners are neither expert nor accountable for their decisions, which contributes to biased and potentially unfair bail outcomes. A system that professionalizes and better holds these officials to account would be a major improvement over the status quo.

Since good public policy takes careful consideration, haste will not improve public safety, nor bring about a more efficient, effective, and, yes, fair criminal justice system.

Governor Larry Hogan and the state legislature should preempt the court’s pending rules change, reinstate bail as a real option for the accused of Maryland and call for more data and accountability in the criminal justice system.

Sean Kennedy (skennedy@mdpolicy.org) is a visiting fellow at the Maryland Public Policy Institute, a think tank based in Rockville, Md. He is the author of the recent study, “Bent, not Broken: Assessing Maryland’s Bail System and Reforms in Context.”

LETTER: Newark FOP Pres to AG Porrino – NJ Bail Reform – “We have a crisis on our hands – authority of police on the street diminished”

In a bold move to fix New Jersey’s failing bail reform, Newark Fraternal Order of Police President James Stewart, Jr. wrote a letter on March 8, 2017 to Attorney General Christopher Porrino detailing the failures of bail reform and warning that “we have a crisis on our hands.

US Bail Reform News was able to obtain a copy of the letter…

Now there are cops bringing in suspects for aggravated assaults, possession of weapons, for large amounts of narcotics, and those charges are being downgraded right there at the precinct by an on-scene Assistant Prosecutor. Instead of Warrants, the charges are going on a Summons, the prisoners being released with just a signature, and a promise they will be good from now on…These one-man crime waves can not keep being released back upon the community.

The cops out on the street, the first responders out there running toward danger, going after the bad guys, all know about Probable Cause, and they know about the elements of the crimes that lead to the charges levied against the suspects they encounter. It has been a system that has worked for decades and decades.

– James Stewart, Jr, President, Newark FOP Lodge #12


March 8, 2017

Mr. Christopher S. Porrino, New Jersey Attorney General

Dear Mr. Porrino,

I am writing to you today because I need help. I am writing to you today because the citizens of Newark need help. Bail Reform and Prosecutor Screening is running Newark off the tracks and everybody seems to be standing on the platform watching it happen. This simply can NOT be what was envisioned when this concept was on the drawing board.

The cops out on the street, the first responders out there running toward danger, going after the bad guys, all know about Probable Cause, and they know about the elements of the crimes that lead to the charges levied against the suspects they encounter. It has been a system that has worked for decades and decades.

Now things have changed. Now there are cops bringing in suspects for aggravated assaults, possession of weapons, for large amounts of narcotics, and those charges are being downgraded right there at the precinct by an on-scene Assistant Prosecutor. Instead of Warrants, the charges are going on a Summons, the prisoners being released with just a signature, and a promise they will be good from now on…

I have example after example, just here in Newark, of criminals being arrested, only to be released under Bail Reform, and getting arrested again within days. This creates more crime. This creates more VICTIMS.

  • Roger Thomas was arrested on 1/26/2017 for 2 church burglaries. He was released. On 2/6/2017 he was arrested again for burglarizing the same church on 2/2/2017. He was released again on 2/7/2017. He has been arrested at least 46 previous times.
  • Josh Winstead was arrested on 2/1/2017 lor burglary to auto and charged additionally with a
    crime from 1/12/2017. He was released. On 2/15/2017 he was arrested again for breaking
    into 3 more cars. He has been arrested more than 100 limes in New Jersey, North Carolina
    and Georgia
  • Martin Sanchez was slated on 1/27/2017 for burglary and possession of burglary tools in
    Harrison. On 2/13/2017 he was arrested again for burglary and obstructing in Newark. The
    next day, 2/14/2017, he was again arrested, this time in Kearny. He has at least 18 arrests.
  • Josh Nieves was arrested 1/13/2017 in Belleville for shoplifting. He was arrested again in
    Newark on 2/2/2017 for burglary. He has been arrested at least 42 prior times.
  • Amir Copeland recently made national news when his life was saved by a Newark Sergeant
    after he jumped into a river in an attempt to elude capture after a vehicle pursuit. On
    1/20/2017 he was arrested for receiving stolen auto in Newark. On 2/3/2017 he was arrested
    for the same charge in Union. On 2/15/2017 he lead police in a chase through multiple
    jurisdictions in yet another stolen auto before crashing and jumping into the river.
  • Furad Fleming was arrested on 2/12/2017 for possession of 548 bags of heroin within a
    school zone and $380 was confiscated. On 2/23/2017 he was arrested for the same charges
    and 95 bags of heroin and $154 was confiscated. On 2/28/2017 he was identified as a
    suspect in a robbery. He has been arrested 14 times.

I believe the original intent of Bail Reform, at least as it was sold to the public, was to create
the possibility that violent criminals could be held without bail. Instead, it has created a
literal revolving door in the holding cell, putting habitual criminals right back on the street.

Is this what we want? Is this what the community we serve wants? This practice must be
reevaluated and a better solution brought to the table.

The authority of the police in the street is being diminished. Radio cars are being tied up in
the precinct awaiting call backs from on-call assistant prosecutors or judges during off hours,
creating a backlog of calls for service from the citizens. Overtime is mounting for cops
handling late assignments. Suspects are being released, potentially near victims that have
identified them, creating a public safety issue. What message are we sending to law
enforcement? What message are we sending to the citizens we are serving?

The cops work the street, 24/7, 365 days a year. The assistant prosecutors handle the
courtroom side of things. The cops need probable cause, the attorneys are looking for
beyond a reasonable doubt. We can not have the attorneys working along side the police
officers while they have one eye down the road thinking about how the court case will go, the
process is doomed to fail. The citizens will be the ones left to suffer.

Again, I ask for your help. We have a crisis on our hands. We have police officers being told everything they have learned, all their experience on the street, no longer matters. We can not continue to browbeat our men and women out on the street, have them stand by as charges are reduced, or simply dismissed, before the paperwork is even started, and then have career criminals walk out the door before the last report is signed.

Law enforcement has not asked for this. The community has not asked for this. It just leaves me one more question. Who did ask for this?

Thank you for your time. Should you need to speak to me directly, or have any inquiries regarding this issue, I am always available.

James Stewart, Jr., President, Newark FOP Lodge #12

 

Does the Current Bail System Penalize the Poor?

The Obama Administration has again challenged the bail system, asserting in an amicus brief in a Georgia case that fixed bail schedules, which don’t account for the ability to pay, are unconstitutional.

This position was most recently asserted in an amicus brief filing in a case in Georgia.  A  previous blog from the Association of Los Angeles District Attorneys observed that a lawsuit in California is also challenging the bail system, although that lawsuit was denied class action status and an injunction earlier this year by a federal judge who issued a scathing decision.

Setting bail for those facing criminal charges is undoubtedly constitutional, as the 8th Amendment only prohibits “excessive bail.”  In addition, the United States Supreme Court approved holding a person pre-trial without bail in a 1987 case, United States v Salerno.

The Obama Administration now seeks to challenge the bail requirement for indigent defendants as a violation of the 14th Amendment.  However, as law professor Stephanos Bibas commented to the Los Angeles Times, the Supreme Court has not previously ruled that the equal protection clause forbids policies which may discriminate against the poor.

In California, Penal Code Section 1269c requires judges in each county to meet yearly and set a uniform bail schedule for that county.  This schedule is used by police to set bail for persons booked into custody following arrest.  If the arrestee does not bail out, he or she must appear for arraignment before a judge within 48 hours.  Once the person appears in court, the judge can consider the crime charged, criminal history of the arrestee and any prior failures to appear in setting bail.

The determination of the judge is not final.  The arrestee may request an additional hearing at which the arrestee is permitted to provide additional facts to challenge the bail amount.

The need for bail as a means to ensure appearances in court is readily apparent.  Some could argue that the current bail system does not penalize the poor, it targets the rich.  Judges routinely change bail amounts to reflect the wealth of a defendant.  For example, a very wealthy person charged with a violent crime will see bail often increased to reflect the fact that the standard bail amount is a less meaningful incentive to appear in court than it would be to the average person charged with a crime.

If there is any doubt that not requiring bail leads to failures to appear in court, consider the impact of Proposition 47.  In California, those arrested for misdemeanor offenses are rarely held pre-trial, instead usually being cited and released to appear in court at a later date.

When Prop. 47 reduced a significant number of felony offenses to misdemeanors, one of the early impacts was that failures to appear in court soared in 40 of the 58 counties surveyed earlier this year.  In Monterey County, there was a 33% increase in failures to appear for misdemeanor offense following the passage of Prop 47.  As a newspaper editorial noted, these criminals are not only failing to make their court dates; they aren’t getting drug treatment either.

If the Obama Administration position calling for the abolition of fixed bail schedules were to be adopted, the consequences in California would be significant. No longer could arrestees on felony offenses be booked into jail without appearing before a judge or commissioner.

Instead, those arrestees would have to appear before a judge or commissioner prior to being booked in jail, with a Deputy District Attorney and defense attorney required to be present at that hearing. Since arrests occur day and night 365 days a year, that means courtrooms opens 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, to conduct bail hearings, staffed by a judicial officer, court staff, deputy sheriff’s,  a prosecutor and defense attorney.  Since arrest reports would not have been written, the arresting officer would have to be present to give a probable cause declaration.

The case study cited by DOJ as an example of abusive practices was based upon an the arrest of an individual for a misdemeanor offense in Calhoun, Georgia — a town so small that court was only in session once a week.  Never mind that Calhoun’s practice of holding individuals in custody for over 72 hours most likely violated other constitutional rights.  The focus was the $160 bond required for release before the arrestee’s first appearance in court.  By contrast, the California Penal Code requires that all arrested persons be brought before the court within 48 hours (weekends excepted).

The Obama Administration’s argument that all pre-appearance fixed bail schedules are unconstitutional on their face is unfounded, and if adopted would impose great financial costs upon California counties, not to mention the public safety implications.

As is typical with “reformers,” the Justice Department’s brief offers criticism, but little in the way of workable solutions.  For example, the current bail in Los Angeles for the crime of murder is $2 million. If an indigent homeless person commits murder, is the Department of Justice suggesting that the bail should be reduced to, say, $100 or some similarly insignificant amount?

The assertion that it is unfair to detain a person charged with a crime pre-trial based “solely” on his or her inability to pay bail begs the question: Who would be in custody if they could pay the bond?

Every single person charged with a crime in California who is in custody pending arraignment or trial (other than those charged with capital murder which carries no bail) is there because the bail was set at an amount they were unable to pay.

The use of fixed bail schedules in California post-arrest, and before arraignment, is both respectful of public safety and an arrestee’s constitutional right.  We await the decision of the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals and perhaps the United States Supreme Court for the final word.

Bail Reformers Aren’t Waiting for Bail Reform

They’re using charity to set poor defendants free.

 

The nationwide movement for bail reform is advancing, gradually, through legislatures and courts. Just last week the U.S. Department of Justice filed a friend-of-the-court brief with the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, arguing for the first time at this level that putting defendants in jail because of their inability to pay bail is unconstitutional. The appeals court is considering the case of a man in Calhoun, Georgia who was kept in jail for six nights on a misdemeanor charge of being a pedestrian under the influence because he could not afford $160 bail.

Meanwhile, bail reform advocates increasingly are taking direct action: raising charitable funds they use to put up bail for defendants too poor to pay their way out of jail.

These funds have sprung up in recent years in cities across the country, including Boston, Brooklyn, Nashville, and Seattle. Similar funds are currently being explored in St. Louis, Miami, Cincinnati, Oakland, Philadelphia, and Austin. Because bail is typically returned as long as a defendant meets his court obligations, bail funds can be used repeatedly to bail out more people.

Most proponents of bail funds see their work as a form of political resistance, using charity to chip away at a system they believe should not depend on money. “Our overall goal is to end money bail,” said Sharlyn Grace, co-founder of the Chicago Community Bond Fund, which has paid roughly $160,000 for the release of over 30 people, including $35,000 for a woman charged with killing her allegedly abusive husband. “One thing we’re clear about is that we don’t want to exist,” she said.

That is not what motivates the most recent potential entry into the bail fund world. The American Bail Coalition, a trade group for insurance companies that underwrite bail, is considering setting up a charitable bail fund of its own. This represents a change of tune for an industry that has repeatedlydenied that bail often leaves poor people languishing in jail while the well-to-do go home. “It does happen, so I think we need to admit that,” said Jeff Clayton, policy director for the industry coalition, although he insists the inequities aren’t as widespread as bail reform advocates claim. “We can do some good if we put our mind to it.”

Critics of bail suspect the insurance companies’ fund, if it materializes, is part of a public relations campaign to soften the industry’s image and slow the pace of serious reforms.

“The insurance companies think if they do a bail fund, that will slow down the progress of eliminating money, because then they can say, ‘Look, we don’t need bail reform, we’re making progress through bail funds,’” said Tim Schnacke, a bail critic who has analyzed and written extensively about bail systems.

“A national bail fund sponsored by the bail bondsman?” said Cherise Fanno Burdeen, the executive director of the Pretrial Justice Institute. “That’s like a free sample of heroin from a drug dealer.”

Burdeen said bail funds — whether run by the industry or its critics — are unlikely to interfere with bail reform efforts, because lawmakers around the country are more concerned about the other end of the bail system: dangerous people with the means to buy their way out, who may commit new crimes.

“The public safety element of this is more important to stakeholders than poor people who can’t post bond,” said Burdeen.

Bail funds, proponents say, are serving as laboratories of sorts, testing the long-held belief that defendants are more likely to behave themselves and show up for court dates if they have money at stake. The Bronx Freedom Fund, which is an outgrowth of a public defender office, says it has bailed out more than 600 people charged with misdemeanors since 2007. Although they had none of their own money on the line, the vast majority, 96 percent, returned for their court dates, in some cases as many as 15 appearances. Fifty-five percent had their charges dismissed entirely; many of them probably would have pled guilty if the fund had not freed them.

“Anybody will plead guilty to go home, and everybody knows it,” said Robin Steinberg, co-founder of the Bronx fund. “This model allows us to prove that point while freeing people in the meantime.” Steinberg said she is working to establish a national bail fund, called the Bail Project, that would provide seed money and technical assistance in communities across the country. They hope to launch in the fall.

Bail funds have an array of origins and structures. The Massachusetts Bail Fund was started in 2013 by a group of defense attorneys and social workers. The fund uses a scoring tool to help assess each applicant’s potential to appear in court and caps charitable bail at $500 per defendant. The Connecticut Bail Fund, expected to launch this September, was organized by a group of Yale students who are now working on getting their state bondsman licenses (a requirement to post bail in some states). The Lorena Borjas Community Fund in Queens works to raise bail money for transgender women of color, mostly sex workers. And New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito is also working to establish a bail fund. Other funds were started by local activists protesting police violence, including bail funds in Baltimore, Oakland, Ferguson, Cleveland, and most recently, Baton Rouge, where nearly $300,000 was raised to help bail out protesters after Alton Sterling was shot by white police officers.

Laws in some states and cities make it far more difficult to sustain bail funds. When Just City, a nonprofit in Tennessee, tried to establish a bail fund in Nashville and Memphis, the group encountered an obstacle: in some parts of Tennessee, courts deduct fines and fees directly from a person’s bail deposit, regardless of who posted it; this threatened to slowly drain the fund. Nashville officials agreed to make an exception and return money to bail funds without deductions, but Memphis was less accommodating, and Just City has suspended its plan for a bail fund there.

The Massachusetts Bail Fund had early success, bailing out hundreds and documenting a 60 percent case dismissal rate for their clients. But the money ran out. “The need seems to be bottomless,” said Atara Rich-Shea, the fund’s operations director. She said getting the money back has been a challenge because the organization isn’t always notified when a case has concluded. They anticipate reopening in September.

This summer, the Chicago Community Bond Fund temporarily limited the number of new clients it accepts to focus on replenishing the fund. The fund is relying on success stories to help them raise that money. One recent client was Steven Cordon, 23, who was accused of having 1.6 grams of crack cocaine and was booked into Chicago’s Cook County Jail this April because he didn’t have $2,000 to bail himself out. He pleaded not guilty to drug possession and sat behind bars for a month awaiting trial before the Chicago fund was alerted to his case. The fund paid for his release on May 1, and four days later, a judge dismissed the charges, citing a lack of probable cause.

Cordon’s lawyer, Borjan Kovacevic, said the case could have gone much differently if Cordon hadn’t been bailed out. As a defense attorney, he has had numerous clients who pleaded guilty against his advice, he said, because they are desperate to be free. “I knew for a fact they were innocent, but they’re scared, they’re getting beat up, and all they can think about is getting out of there,” Kovacevic said.