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Marion County on verge of bail reform project

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. - With Superior Court judges on board, Marion County is on the verge of being selected by a national non-profit organization for an innovative program to relax bail payments for low-income defendants in jail.

“The Bail Project,” launched a decade ago in the Bronx, provides a revolving community bail fund to help low risk offenders, usually facing low bail amounts, raise the money to secure their freedom pending trial.

During the 2018 Marion County Conference on re-entry on the IUPUI campus, Bail Project Director of Strategic Partnerships Darryl McAdoo said Indianapolis should receive word by early December whether the groundbreaking bail reform program will be established here.

“It seems like there is a good possibility that we’ll be able to work and function here,” said McAdoo. “Bailing out about a thousand people a year with the revolving fund. That generally comes out to about four to five hundred thousand dollars per year for a particular site.”

While The Bail Project would provide the seed money and community bail fund resources, organizers would seek local partners for additional services such as transportation to make certain that offenders would make their court dates.

After the charges against the Bail Project-aided defendant are resolved, the bail is returned by the court to the fund to be utilized for another case.

“We have been able to bail out about 275 people since May and I would like to say almost all of them have come back to court including lots of homeless people and people with substance abuse problems,” said Holly Zoller, of the Louisville Bail Project, where assistance is capped at $5000.

“People are innocent until proven guilty and being held in pre-trial.”

Richard Samuels estimates he’s spent 26 years of his life behind bars.

“You look at my prison record and the majority of the time I took a plea bargain,” he said.

Samuels, Board Chairman of Community Action of Greater Indianapolis, said he was a, “frequent flyer of the Marion County Jail,” awaiting trial while he couldn’t afford bail.

“Of course I lost my employment, any employment that I may have had on several occasions because I was unable to make bond, so that job went by the wayside,” he said.  “I’d rather be out trying to start my life all over again if I took the plea bargain then to sit there and go through the trial and the guilty pleas were always better for me.”

Of the approximately 2500 men and women inside the crowded Marion County incarceration system, about 85% are awaiting trial and half of those are charged with lower level felonies with lower bonds.

“What we found out was that folks who are in jail and they can’t pay bail, 90% of the time they end up pleading guilty despite whether they actually believe they could have won the case,” said McAdoo. “So when you’re stuck in jail and you just want to get out, you end up pleading guilty to get home to your children, get home to your job and so we also just want to take that pressure off of somebody so they can actually think seriously and critically about their case.”

Zoller recalled the case of a man charged with a low level marijuana possession who stubbornly refused a plea agreement because he believed in his own innocence and was released from jail thanks to support from the Bail Project.

“He’s been sitting in jail 18 months pre-trial on two thousand dollars bond, 18 months, so, a year and a half, he’s been sitting in jail, no conviction, and he has three kids at home, he is a sole provider for his family,” said Zoller, “and he’s now been released, he’s working, he’s coming back to court, he gets to see his kids every day and he was actually there to see his son go to his first day of school.”

Marion County’s progress in pursuing criminal justice reform, including off-ramping non-violent offenders with substance abuse and mental health issues before they are incarcerated and streamlining the criminal court system, has garnered the attention of national reform efforts such as the The Bail Project.

The conference included breakout sessions on Marion County’s new $572 million community justice center, the impact of previous incarcerations on fatal overdose victims and strategies for offender re-entry into society.

Each year, some 2500 parolees are sent back home to live in Marion County after their release from the Department of Correction. It's estimated a third of them showed symptoms or histories of traumatic brain injuries at the time of their convictions.

38,000 a year are arrested in Marion County while 17,250 offenders are under some sort of probation, parole or community corrections oversight.