'The Bail Project' seeks to reduce jail crowding of low-level offenders in Marion County

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Mary Burrows has spent most of her 50 years getting into trouble.

“I had a bad criminal history,” she said. “I’ve been in and out of jail, been to prison a few times, like ever since I was twenty, and just leading up to living a negative lifestyle and getting trouble.”

The familiar pattern that has seen Burrows sentenced to 17 years in prison over the past three decades was about to repeat itself again last summer when the east side woman found herself inside the Marion County Jail facing battery, theft and probation charges that carried a bail price tag of $1500.

“Was there any chance you were going to be able to raise $1500 to get out of jail?” I asked her.

“Nope,” said Burrows. “I just gave up. I told everybody, ‘I’m not getting out. I’m just gonna have to sit and sit and sit and wait go to three or four court cases and then have to do the time for the two new cases, the battery and the new theft, and then on top of that, the backup time for the probation,’ so I’m like, ‘Its over.’”

Luckily for Mary, it wasn’t.

In January of last year, supported by a $50,000 grant from The Indianapolis Foundation, The Bail Project launched in Indianapolis, one of 20 cities nationwide to participate in a program to reduce jail crowding and maintain continuity in the lives of low-level offenders facing trial.

In 13 months, The Bail Project - Indianapolis has helped 400 clients bond out of jail pending trial with 175 cases resolved and a 95% return rate for court dates.

“The philosophy is to actually prove that cash bail is not required in order for individuals to return to court,” said Bail Project Regional Director of Operations David Gaspar. “Our model is that when we bail somebody out, we’re connecting them to the resources that are available in their cities in order to help them stabilize and move forward. Its those resources and community connections that actually are what is needed and not incarcerating people.”

Bail reform advocates claim that offenders who cannot afford to bond out of jail pending trial are more likely to undergo life-altering stress, re-offend, lose jobs, homes and families and plead guilty to felonies they may not deserve simply to leave incarceration.

“Our clients have needs and we know upon release there might be certain needs that they’re going to need immediately and sometimes even later on when they call after getting released,” said Devi Davis, a Bail Project client advocate.

“They may need jobs, they may need housing, they may need substance abuse referrals, mental health referrals, fatherhood engagement referrals, motherhood engagement referrals, cell phones. There’s so many things that our clients may need upon release because particularly if they’ve been in jail for a long period of time, we know that even 24-48 hours somebody being incarcerated they can lose so much. They can lose housing, lose family, lose children, lose jobs.”

The Marion County Jail system has 2507 beds for offenders. The Marion County Re-Entry Coalition estimates that 85% of those offenders are awaiting trial and 50% of those are in on low-level, non-violent charges.

The average cost to feed, medicate and house an offender inside the Marion County Jail system is between $54-78 per day.

Approximately 37,000 people a year are arrested in Marion County.

Last summer, Davis looked at Mary Burrows’ file and determined she would be a good candidate for Bail Project support to secure her jail release pending trial.

“First of all I couldn’t believe that she came to interview me,” said Burrows. “She gave me hope that they were gonna help.”

Within two days of the initial jail interview, Burrows was out on bond.

“I was screaming like, ‘Thank you, Jesus! Thank you, Bail Project!’ I was really happy,” she said.

“I was so grateful. I was so determined that I was out to have another chance and because I was gonna give up because I had no hope I was like its over,” said Burrows. “When I got out I just felt positive and motivated and I said I wanted to make sure that I went to court I was just feeling like I had another chance to start over again.”

Burrows’ two new cases were dismissed and she came into compliance with her probation on an earlier conviction, and she’s been sober for six months.

“How has this changed your way of thinking?” I asked her.

“That its not too late,” said Burrows. “Don’t give up, I thought I was giving up, I thought it was over, I’m fifty years old, I was just giving up on everything but I have another chance to get myself together and I just have hope.”

Gaspar said The Bail Project is committed to four more years of serving clients inside the Marion County jail and studying the roadblocks incarceration puts on them and costs taxpayers.

“We’re collecting the data that over 70% of our clients have children under the age of 18 that they’re responsible for. We’re collecting the data that over 70% of our clients actually have some type of need that is related to mental health or substance abuse. We’re tracking that 60% of our clients have no means of transportation. That means that they don’t have a vehicle and they’re not on a bus line, but we’re collecting this data and we’re sharing it out because we want to help the city and the community actually fill in those gaps in order to better support each other so hopefully not just get people out of jail but prevent people from ever going to jail in the first place.”

For more information, visit BailProject.org.

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