INDIANAPOLIS — The Bail Project has a simple mission: to bail out defendants who can’t afford to pay, in hopes of bringing equity to the justice system.
David Gaspar, The Bail Project’s national director of operations, told WRTV his non-profit organization strives to build a system that treats people fairly “regardless of how much money they have in their bank account.”
The group has made an impact in Marion County, posting bail for 941 defendants since November 2018.
But it's had to answer some difficult questions in recent months after three people they’ve helped get out of jail were later accused of committing violent crimes. Two defendants have been accused of murder and one allegedly stabbed and wounded two police officers.
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WRTV asked Gaspar in an email exchange about The Bail Project’s mission, its criteria on choosing who to help and how it reacts when someone they've helped is later accused of a violent crime.
What is your criteria for choosing who qualifies for bail assistance?
Gaspar: We assist low-income individuals who cannot afford bail on their own or through a bail bonds agent or family member. Once we receive a referral from a family member or the public defender's office, we interview the individual to learn more about their situation and assess their needs. We ask questions about housing stability, transportation, and, if appropriate, whether the person is interested in substance use treatment or mental health resources, among other things. We take into account other factors, including whether they have family outside that depends on them for income or whether their health is at risk inside the jail due to lack of medication or treatment.
What is the maximum bail amount you cover?
Gaspar: We don't have a set maximum though we prioritize lower bail amounts in order to help the most people possible. We take into consideration all the referrals that come to us from the community and also consider unique individual circumstances, for example pregnancy and health conditions, when paying higher than average bails.
Does The Bail Project bail out suspects accused of violent crimes?
Gaspar: We take the presumption of innocence very seriously, and our goal is to ensure people have equal access to this Constitutional protection regardless of how much money they have in their bank account. Regardless of the type of charge, at the stage where judges set cash bail, people have not yet been convicted. In fact, the court hasn't even reviewed the evidence against them. Moreover, once judges set cash bail for an individual, be it for a violent or non-violent charge, they have already decided that the person can be safely released to the community contingent on paying that bail amount. All we do is offer financial assistance for bail if the person is too poor to afford the amount.
Does the nature of the crime make a difference as to who gets your help?
Gaspar: At the bail-setting stage, a crime has not been proven and the person is presumed innocent. There is only an accusation and the beginning of an adversarial process for the court to determine if there is evidence to support the accusation. In our role, we suspend judgment on whether a crime has actually occurred, as that is for the court to decide. That said, we do look at the larger context of an accusation as it can reveal whether the person has certain needs that have not been addressed, for instance drug addiction or a mental health crisis. This context can inform the type of services and resources we would connect the person to if we decided to offer bail assistance.
Are the bail decisions based on the amount of money the bail is set at? What other factors do you consider in deciding whether to help an individual?
Gaspar: Not necessarily, though we prioritize lower bail amounts in order to help the most people possible. We review all community referrals and take special individual circumstances into account, like health concerns or whether the person is the sole provider for a child, when determining eligibility.
There have been several instances this year where people assisted by the Bail Project have later been accused of violent crimes. How is The Bail Project reacting to this?
Gaspar: The Bail Project is committed to doing everything we can to support people after their release, including connections to housing, treatment, mental health services and other resources as needed. It is never our intention to put anyone at harm, but much like the court, we cannot predict what a person might do in the future. When there are tragic cases, of course we revisit the case and look for anything we could have done differently. But what these cases truly highlight is that people in a state of crisis easily fall through the cracks.
The Bail Project paid $750 bail in April to free Deonta Williams on a felony burglary charge. Williams, 20, is accused of luring two Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department officers to him before he stabbed them on Dec.1. Prosecutors charged Williams with attempted murder. What do you want to say about that case?
Gaspar: Williams, who had been living in a homeless shelter, received a large medical bill he could not pay and this seems to have sent him into a mental breakdown. This is such a profoundly tragic situation, not only for the police officers who suffered injuries, but also for this 20-year-old who, at an age when other young people are in college planning their future, is already homeless, burdened with medical debt, sinking into a mental health crisis and now facing prison for the rest of his life. We look at a case like this and there is little we could have done differently, short of solving poverty, lack of healthcare, mental illness and all the systemic issues this situation reveals.
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Contact WRTV reporter Vic Ryckaert at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter: @vicryc.