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Shawn Vestal: Project in Spokane will bail accused low-level offenders out of jail in bid to even the field

The Bail Project: Sabrina Ryan-Helton and Angel Tomeo Sam are “bail disruptors” who have been hired to begin bailing people out of jail here, as part of a new program in town called The Bail Project. It plans to bail out 1,000 in the next year in Spokane, and it opposes cash bail as a fundamentally unfair, unconstitutional system that provides different levels of justice to people based on their income. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)

Sabrina Ryan and Angel Tomeo Sam had an incredibly busy few days last week.

They toured Spokane jail facilities, met with public defenders and community groups, went over jail logs and met inmates face to face, all in preparation to begin bailing people out of the Spokane County jail. They started with just a couple on Friday, but will bail out hundreds of people over the next year who can’t afford to post the money for their own release.

Ryan and Sam are on the front lines of a new Spokane effort – run by a national nonprofit, The Bail Project – intended to fight fundamental inequities built into the cash bail system, and perhaps help reduce crowding in Spokane’s perpetually cramped jail along the way.

“Spokane is ready,” Sam said. “Spokane is really ready for something like this.”

On any given day, more than two-thirds of Spokane’s jail population is made up of people who have been charged but not convicted, and who remain locked up – at a cost of some $130 a day – only because they can’t post bail. This reflects the reality of local jails nationwide, where pretrial defendants make up the large majority of the people jailed, caught up in a two-tiered system of justice.

“Two people charged with the exact same crime will experience radically different constitutional protections in the system, depending on their bank accounts,” said Camilo Ramirez, communications director for the Bail Project. “What we’re trying to disrupt is the cycle of poverty and (criminalization) that keeps so many families trapped in the system.”

Over the course of the next year, Ryan and Sam will work as bail advocates – the project also calls them bail disruptors – looking to help roughly 1,000 people who are sitting in jail, presumed innocent. The Bail Project started in New York City and is expanding around the country; its broad goal is to help break the linked cycle of poverty and mass incarceration that disproportionately affects people of color, and to eliminate a fundamentally unfair system of pretrial detention.

The project is coming to Spokane with an eye on reducing the ever-expanding jail population and targeting systemic inequities for people of color, and particularly Native Americans. It operates as a national bail fund, with an annual budget in any given community of roughly $500,000.

“Money should not be the thing that keeps someone in jail,” said Daryl McAdoo, director of strategic partnerships for project. “When you put bail in the game, you’re fundamentally saying whether you are released or not is based on money.”

Inequities behind bars

The project’s leaders decided to come to Spokane after being approached by several officials from the city of Spokane and other local organizations, said Gloria Ochoa-Bruck, director of local government and multicultural affairs for the city of Spokane.

Local officials have been working to reform the justice system, reduce the jail population, and eliminate some of the bureaucratic obstacles and “stickiness” that traps people in cycles of poverty and crime. People who can’t afford bail suffer greater immediate consequences than those who can, consequences that deepen and become more seriously criminal – often for reasons that are not criminal in nature whatsoever.

“We’re always looking for ways to address this problem,” she said.

Large-scale pretrial detention is expensive. We pay around $130 per day to keep one person in the county jail, and our jail population keeps rising despite efforts to bring it down. The most recent figures show that the average daily population at the Spokane jail in October was 950; the county’s goal for October, set in concert with a project from the MacArthur Foundation, was less than 800.

More than two-thirds of that population is in pretrial detention. An exact breakdown of how many had been set a bail they could not afford was not available, but it’s presumed to be the majority of that population.

Local governments are not funding the project, but hope it brings down jail costs that might free up money for other services. Empire Health Foundation is providing services for those who are bailed out to help eliminate obstacles that might make it hard for them to return to court, whether it’s transportation or medical care.

They will also be connected to the new EnVision Center, an all-in-one social services resources center, modeled on part of the community court program that operates Mondays at the downtown library, that will open downtown in January.

For the Empire Health Foundation, reducing the inequities built into cash bail is part of building healthy communities.

“We know there’s an overrepresentation of people of color in jail and we’re really intentional about reducing it or, if possible, eliminating it,” said Christina Kamkosi, program coordinator for the foundation.

‘You’ve got to plead guilty’

Ryan has a firsthand understanding the difference bail can make. Roughly 20 years ago, she was convicted of a shooting in Kitsap County, which she said was self-defense, and was held before the case was resolved in jail without bail.

In 2010, in Spokane, she faced charges of theft and drug possession, but was released on her own recognizance. In that time, she started going to school and getting treatment for addiction, and turning around her life in other ways.

“When I was able to stay out and fight my case, I was able to do positive things,” said Ryan, who has become an activist on a range of criminal justice issues.

The criminal justice system spends millions and millions of dollars jailing people who have not been convicted of crimes – and who would not be jailed at all if they were wealthier. The large majority of such cases are nonviolent crimes, and the denial of release in many such cases can have dramatic effects.

People can lose jobs or apartments, can be separated from their families or suffer other consequences that begin to make it hard for them to climb out from behind their problems. Often, people who can’t afford bail are suffering other problems, whether it’s homelessness or addiction, lack of transportation or mental illness, that would be better treated than handled through incarceration, project supporters say.

Furthermore, a lack of bail puts a defendant at a serious disadvantage in terms of defending themselves. It becomes a form of leverage through which defendants can be pressured to plead guilty, McAdoo said.

“That happens so often,” he said. “It totally disrupts the way justice is administered. In order to be free, you’ve got to plead guilty.”

Not just a check

Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich, who has been an advocate of a new jail in the past, said last week that he has been familiar with the Bail Project for several years. He believes it has a lot of promise.

“Done properly, I think it has some value,” he said. “The lower down on the economic ladder you are, you do have a chance of not being able to make bail.”

But Knezovich said that hopes to dramatically affect the jail population may be unrealistic. Spokane courts have already scaled back on jailing lower-level criminals, he said, going back a decade to when crowding problems first became a crisis.

Superior Court Judge Maryann Moreno said that bridging the gap between poor and rich defendants is worthwhile, but what she especially appreciates about the approach of the project in Spokane is its attempt to connect bailed-out defendants with services that could ensure they make it back to court and begin to address other problems in their lives.

“They don’t just go to the courthouse and write a check for $1,000,” she said, but also try to get that person help with transportation, ID, treatment or whatever they need.

Some people have an almost instinctive distrust of the idea, because cash bail is so deeply ingrained in the system. It’s common, Ochoa-Bruck said, to hear concerns that a project that bails people out removes their incentive to return for later court hearings.

“There’s this belief that more bail keeps people safe – ‘skin in the game’ – so they will return,” she said.

The Bail Project’s experiences so far suggest that is not the case. It began a decade ago with a single bail fund in the Bronx; in the years since, having bailed out thousands of people, the project has seen nearly 96 percent return for their court appearances, Ramirez said.

Early indications in other cities, such as St. Louis, show a similar rate of return.

“And these people have no skin in the game,” Ryan said. “None. Some stranger bailed them out.”

Moreno said people might forget that setting a bond amount is not intended to keep someone in jail – it’s meant to be an affordable way for them to get out of jail.

“It’s supposed to be an amount they can afford to post,” she said. “It’s meant to allow, not deny, release.”

‘You’ll fill the beds’

Each Project Bail site is gathering statistics, and that is part of what it will do in Spokane as well. The bail advocates select people to bail out based on the seeming likelihood that they will return. They operate with a “soft cap” of the median bail amount in a community (Spokane’s is below $5,000), and will post bail for primarily low-level nonviolent crimes.

But Ramirez emphasizes that they “don’t discriminate by charge.” He notes that people frequently make the mistake of thinking of this population as criminals, when they are in fact presumed innocent. He also said that setting bail that people cannot pay violates the excessive bail clause of the Constitution – it’s meant to be set as a condition of release, not a mechanism for denying it.

Spokane is not the typical site for the Bail Project, which has tended to focus on large cities with sizable populations of people of color. Ramirez said part of what drew the Bail Project’s interest was the interest from so many community partners; another part was looking to see if it could find ways to address opioid addiction among the population whom it bails out.

A further reason is the long-term interest among some in Spokane for building a new jail. Talk about that has been at an ebb recently, but as efforts to bring down the jail population in other ways are stymied, it’s likely to re-emerge.

McAdoo said the Bail Project has an interest in preventing the construction of new jails.

“We know if you build a new jail and build it bigger, you will fill the beds,” he said.

‘Crimes of poverty’

On Friday, Ryan and Sam were preparing to bail out two defendants – one for $500 and one for $1,500, for lower-level, nonviolent crimes.

They did not yet want to discuss the cases more specifically, but talked about interviewing people in jail whose circumstances were keeping them locked up.

One man was living in his car, and had no resources for bail. Another couldn’t access his disability checks, upon which his family relied, and another was homeless. They said that many of the people they spoke to were eager to participate if they could, and that they understood if they were bailed out and fulfilled their court obligations, the money used to bail them out would be returned and go toward helping someone else.

“These are people who have been charged with crimes of poverty, Sam said.

Editor’s note: Local governments in the Spokane area are not funding the Bail Project. An error related to that was corrected in the story.

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