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Activists concerned over bills that take aim at charitable bail funds

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The issue of cash bail has garnered more attention after a rash of deaths of people in custody at the Louisville Metro Department of Corrections in recent months. Some state lawmakers are proposing changes to the bail process, but not the kind sought by reform advocates who want to lower jail populations.

Several bills in Indiana and Kentucky would limit the power of charitable bail organizations. The groups crowdsource money to get people out of jail.

Bail fund advocates argue that people who commit low-level, nonviolent offenses are often kept in jail for long periods of time, simply because they can’t afford their release.

“Bail was meant to be a condition of release, it was not meant to be punitive,” said Shameka Parrish-Wright, a mayoral candidate who works with the Bail Project in Louisville. “And it was not meant to hold people just because they’re poor.”

The Louisville Bail Project started in 2018, but rose to prominence during the 2020 protests over the police killing of Breonna Taylor. The group has bailed out 3,500 people in Louisville and Southern Indiana since it launched four years ago.

But some lawmakers say those types of organizations shouldn’t be allowed, at least not in their current form. Indiana State Sen. Aaron Freeman, a Republican from Indianapolis, authored a bill that requires bail funds to receive government certification or be limited to a bailing out no more than two people every six months.

The legislation would also prohibit taxpayer money from going towards the funds, among other measures.

“They don’t have the same connections to the community that other groups do,” Freeman said. “So I do feel it very appropriate, if these kinds of people, if these kinds of organizations are going to exist and they’re going to do this kind of work, we should limit them to misdemeanors and cap them at $2,000 bond.”

Freeman said the oversight and limitations are needed because the funds are run by non-local groups. That’s an argument that’s been echoed by Kentucky lawmakers, who have proposed legislation to ban charitable bail funds altogether.

Chanelle Helm, co-founder of the Louisville Community Bail Fund and an organizer with Black Lives Matter, takes issue with that.

“I live here,” she said. “My people came from the plantation of Lancaster and Spalding in Lebanon city here in Kentucky. How dare somebody try to say just because these things are very radical and underneath Black liberation, that I don’t belong in Kentucky, that it doesn’t belong in Kentucky?”

Helm said lawmakers should work to improve jails and community support systems instead of villainizing incarcerated people and those trying to help them.

Since late November, six people have died in custody of Louisville’s jail. Ta’Neasha Chappell, a Black woman from Louisville, died in a Southern Indiana jail in July.

A study by the Data Collaborative for Justice at John Jay College and Pew Charitable Trusts found that Black people accounted for 39% of jail admissions in Louisville in 2019, despite only making up 24% of the population. Helm said many remain in jail because they can’t afford bail.

“In a place where the GOP values less government, you’re willing to issue more government against the people who are doing stuff for their communities,” she said. “It’s not regulation at all, it’s oppression. What we’re watching is modern-day oppression.”

Sen. Freeman rejects that criticism. He said his bill was a response to the City of Indianapolis giving money to the Bail Project through a crime prevention grant. He and other lawmakers have also used instances where people released by bail funds have gone on to commit violent crimes as justification for the proposed changes.

“If anybody else wants to make it any other issue, God bless them,” he said. “They’re welcome to do that. The bill here for me got started because we were using public tax dollars to bail people out of jail. Now, if we can’t agree that’s not a good use of public tax dollars, we’re probably not going to agree on much else.”

The Louisville Bail Project said more than 90% of its clients return for their court date without issue. The group also provides people with services ahead of court dates, like transportation, employment and housing.

But Parrish-Wright doesn’t want charitable bail organizations to be a permanent part of the justice system. Their main goal is bigger than bailing people out: they want to alter cash bail entirely.

“We set out to do this work to close our doors eventually,” Parrish-Wright said. “I’ve always said from the beginning, that the best way to close our doors is to have meaningful bail reform and legislation, more administrative releases with community support. And we’ve seen that work. I think that there is no real proof that people getting out pretrial are a direct link to the uptick in crime and the things that we’re seeing.”

Bills limiting charitable bail operations in Indiana have already cleared the House and Senate. Kentucky’s version of the legislation was introduced in committee last month.

Kentucky Rep. John Blanton, a Republican from Salyersville, and Rep. Jason Nemes, a Republican from Louisville, did not respond for comment. Indiana Rep. Peggy Mayfield, a Republican from Martinsville, and Sen. Michael Crider, a Republican from Greenfield, declined interview requests as well.