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.



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 ( 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


Dog the Bounty Hunter and Beth Blast Christie, Bless Clarke

Duane “Dog” and Beth Chapman from the reality TV shows Dog the Bounty Hunterand Dog and Beth: On the Hunt were guests in the Breitbart News Daily studios on Tuesday, talking about how the justice system had been under attack during the Obama administration and how they believe it is on the mend in the era of Donald Trump.

STRANAHAN: When you’re talking about this bail reform movement, what it means, and of course stop me if I’m wrong and tell me if I’m exaggerating — but it means in some cases criminals are being brought in and put right back on the street.

BETH: Within minutes.

DOG: Within minutes.

BETH: Literally the police officers are still inside doing paperwork when the perpetrator is basically let out the door.

DOG: Alleged perpetrator.

BETH: Mmmmm, okay, alleged.

STRANAHAN: And so when we’re talking about the dismantlement of law and order under Obama, this is what I’m talking about.

BETH: Yeah. There’s no teeth, law enforcement’s hands are basically tied. I think they’re far more reluctant to even arrest anybody because it takes them, like I said, more time to do the paperwork then it does to bring them down. But the bigger issue is there’s no accountability and there’s no deterrent, there’s no repercussion, there’s no one looking for these people when they fail to appear. Basically, they’re going to be clogging up the docket so bad there’ll be no efficiency whatsoever in our court systems. Christie went out and he duped his entire state basically and said, “This is only gonna cost a couple of million dollars.” The cost is so expensive now, it’s over $22 million. Most of the counties can’t even afford to implement this policy, and they’ve got small business people dying on the vine there and it’s counterproductive to the economy.

STRANAHAN: And how is letting those criminals back out on the streets working out for the poor?

DOG: Well of course the poor will be poor, but they’re stealing trying to get money.

BETH: But they’re releasing them back into the poor communities. They’re not releasing them into our communities. So in reality he’s re-victimizing the very people that he claims to be helping.

One topic discussed was the so-called “Parole Reform Movement,” which they say was bankrolled by billionaire institutional left funder George Soros, as well as leading libertarian funders the Koch Brothers. The ideologically driven approach to belittle justice has resulted in a revolving door for criminals, said the two bail enforcement agents.

BETH: The Koch Brothers, the Arnold Foundation, The Manhattan Project, the Innocence Project, you know there’s a lot of groups donating quite a bit of money into these things. Harvard donated $1 million, which is very disturbing to me — a school of high learning and you think that they would understand that, again, people aren’t in jail because they’re poor. And basically the most unnerving thing about this whole thing, that we have taken away the voice of the victims. The victims absolutely have no voice — and they have no protection. They think that these guys are gonna go to jail and they’re gonna stay in jail, and they’re safe at least for the night — but not in New Jersey.

DOG: And we’re not talking about graffiti or urinating in public — none of that. We’re talking about first degree burglary, domestic violence, rape of an intoxicated person.

BETH: — giving a gun to a known gang member…

As an example of this ideological influence, take Katharine Huffman, Board Chair of the bail reform movement group Justice Policy Institute, whose biography says:

Ms. Huffman began her legal career as a civil-rights litigator and Soros Justice Fellow at the Southern Center for Human Rights in Atlanta, Georgia.

Dog and Beth had harsh words for former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie:

BETH: Christie’s been awful. He has drank the kool-aid, obviously. But, he’s destroying New Jersey. And not that New Jersey was crime-free to begin with, but now it’s so overrun with crime that you got police chiefs coming out, lieutenants coming out, you got Facebook popping up New Jersey’s bail reform failures. There are so many people so concerned. There was a police chief that basically came out and told his citizens, “I can’t keep you safe. I have to let these guys go by mandate.” And you get Christie on the line about it, or you get him on any type of a radio show or whatever, and he tries to blame the bail bondsman and say, “They’ve been picking on the poor…” If they’re poor, then how could they afford the bail bondsman to begin with?

On the other hand, they had high praise for Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke, who was recently a speaker at the closing day of CPAC. Dog and Beth both appreciate Clarke’s approach to law and order, which they see as in line with the Trump presidency.

MARLOW: So let’s get into your connection with Sheriff Clarke. You’ve been a big advocate for him, he’s considering a Senate bid, talk to us about that.

DOG: Sheriff Clarke is strong law and order. A very fair man. He’s been the Sheriff of Milwaukee for many years, and we love him. And when you get that way, you go to one mountain and you get to the top, there’s another mountain to climb. So he’s the toughest Sheriff, he’s strong law and order. He needs not just to be in one state; we need him nationally.

Breitbart News recently recorded exclusive video interviews with Dog and Beth that will be the centerpiece of several stories related to the Bail Reform Movement by Breitbart lead investigative reporter Lee Stranahan.