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Some people say protest bail funds should be more careful about whom they set free

KELSEY SNELL, HOST:

Donations to Community Bail Fund soared during the protests that followed the murder of George Floyd. The funds are used to bail out people awaiting trial when they can't raise the money themselves. An estimated $100 million poured in, and the funds are now getting a lot more people out of jail. But as NPR's Martin Kaste reports, that's also causing concern among those who wish the bail funds took more care about whom they set free.

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: When you're arrested in Philadelphia, your bail is set to the downtown courts building. The hearings are in a windowless room in the basement. We can't record audio in there, but picture the magistrate and the lawyers behind a glass partition, talking by video to the newly arrested prisoners over at the jail. It's assembly line work. It takes just 4 minutes to set one man's bail at $200,000. He protests, but they're on to the next one. A few blocks away, the Philadelphia Bail Fund is busy getting some of those same people released. Eli Plenk is on a court website paying bail with the fund's credit card and then calling the defendants' families.

ELI PLENK: How are you doing? I just wanted to let you know that I just posted the bail.

KASTE: Sometimes it's the family who asks the bail fund for help.

PLENK: We should still be good in terms of being able to have you pick her up before you have to go to work, I'm hoping.

KASTE: But the fund also scans court records every week looking for people to bail out. They're reaching a lot more people than they used to. In 2018, the fund got 69 people out of jail. Since 2020, it's bailed out 600 people and counting. One of those was the Zahaira Galarza.

ZAHAIRA GALARZA: I was very shocked and surprised because I wasn't expecting to get bailed out, especially, like, within two days. I know my family didn't have the means.

KASTE: The cost of her freedom was $2,500. And when she met the terms of bail, that money was refunded, as happens with most of the people that the fund helps out. Malik Neal is a co-founder of the Philadelphia Bail Fund, and he says the aim here is to help defendants who wouldn't otherwise be able to come up with this cash.

MALIK NEAL: By setting bail, magistrates are saying that person can be released if they have the funds. So they're saying they can be released, and I think all we're doing is leveling the playing field.

KASTE: Neal says prosecutors have unfair leverage over people too poor to come up with bail because the prospect of waiting for trial behind bars coerces them into accepting plea deals.

NEAL: Especially now, you know, with the conditions in the jail, I think folks will just plead to get out.

KASTE: But some prosecutors argue that that leverage can also lead to some good outcomes. Take the case of Kwan Kim.

KWAN KIM: You know, it gave me a chance to change my life.

KASTE: Kim recently graduated from a drug court in Seattle. He says the intensive program broke the cycle of his addiction. But the reason he signed up for it 2 1/2 years ago was that he was stuck in jail and couldn't get bailed out.

KIM: I wasn't interested in getting clean, honestly. You know, I wanted to do whatever I wanted to do to get out of jail at the time.

KASTE: There's just less of that kind of pressure now in cities where the bail funds have increased their reach.

ANGIE GERRALD: I happened to get an email - by the way, just wanted to let you know this person was suddenly released from jail because of a community bail fund.

KASTE: Angie Gerrald is a volunteer who works on public safety in Seattle. She recalls how a few weeks ago, she found out about the release of a drug-addicted woman who'd been plaguing her neighborhood with violent outbursts, including assault. Gerrald says the local bail fund does not seem to have considered the consequences of setting this person free again.

GERRALD: Something like a community bail fund that's taking actions without being in any contact with anyone in an actual neighborhood community who lives with this person just felt very jarring, very disjointed.

CHANEL RHYMES: For us to go in and say, well, you get to stay in jail or you don't because another community member says they should, that's not how bail works.

KASTE: Chanel Rhymes is director of advocacy for the Northwest Community Bail Fund in Seattle. Like most of the funds, it's agnostic about a defendant's criminal history. She says it's not their job to decide who deserves bail, and she wonders why anyone would expect it to be.

RHYMES: Do these people that are concerned in the community go out to the bail bond agencies that actually make a profit and ask them about how do they decide who gets a bond or not?

KASTE: But even as the bail funds contend with this kind of pushback, they're also running into some practical limits on how many people they can set free. That tidal wave of new money from 2020, most of that has now been used. Normally, the way this works is as people show up for court dates, their bail money is recycled back into the bail funds to help out the next person. But that's not happening so much right now.

TIERA RAINEY: We are still in a pandemic.

KASTE: Tiera Rainey runs the Tucson Second Chance Community Bail Fund. And she says COVID-related court delays mean that most of the people that they've bailed out are still waiting for their court dates.

RAINEY: So the bulk of the money is still tied up in the system right now, which means we're having to restrict and think about our budgets every month in a way that we didn't have to the last couple of years.

KASTE: There's also a sense that the rapid growth of the past couple of years has created a crisis of mission. Jocelyn Simonson is a professor at Brooklyn Law who studies bail funds.

JOCELYN SIMONSON: One worry of bail funds when they get so much money is that they will become part of the system.

KASTE: Simonson says bail funds around the country are having, as she puts it, a live debate right now about whether to keep releasing as many people as possible or whether to redirect some of the money to support services for people who are released from jail or to more staffers who could lobby for lasting changes.

SIMONSON: State by state, we are having battles and questions over bail, over policing, over criminalization that we have never had before.

KASTE: And Simonson says much of this debate has been pushed forward by the funds and the simple but disruptive act of bailing strangers out of jail. Martin Kaste, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Martin Kaste is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers law enforcement and privacy. He has been focused on police and use of force since before the 2014 protests in Ferguson, and that coverage led to the creation of NPR's Criminal Justice Collaborative.