INDIANAPOLIS — Dylan McGinnis was gunned down on the east side of Indianapolis in October.
The man accused of killing him was free on bail, records say, thanks to help he received from The Bail Project, a nonprofit that helps poor people get out of jail.
Now, McGinnis' mother is angry and she wants groups like The Bail Project to be more accountable and better regulated.
"Once the offender gets bailed out of jail, there's no accountability to The Bail Project on behalf of that offender," Nikki Sterling said. "This organization is bailing out violent offenders. These are not your misdemeanor charges. We are putting violent criminals back out on the street."
The Bail Project is a national nonprofit that pays bail for criminal defendants too poor to pay for it themselves. The group operates a revolving bail fund that, according to its website, it uses to "prevent incarceration and combat racial and economic disparities in the bail system."
But the group has drawn controversy in recent months as the homicides in Indianapolis have reached a new record high. Critics blame the county's "revolving door" justice system that allows violent criminals back on the streets not long after police arrest them.
The Marion County Superior Courts criminal judges on Monday voted to suspend their support for The Bail Project, citing the group's failure to provide detailed information and data. The judges want to know more about who the group helps and what charges they face. The judges invited The Bail Project representatives to bring additional data to a closed-door meeting next month.
The Bail Project pushes for criminal justice reforms and works to bring equity to a system that many critics say penalizes people just for being poor.
"The amount of money in someone's wallet should not determine whether they're incarcerated pretrial," The Bail Project says on its website.
In Indianapolis, The Bail Project posted bail for 941 defendants since it launched operations here in November 2018. The average bail amount was $2,130 and clients make 95% of the court hearings, according to the group's most recent report.
David Gaspar, the group's national director of operations, said it should make no difference who pays the bail.
"Judges set cash bail and once they do, it should not matter who posts the bail, whether it is a family member, a bail bonds company, or a charity like ours," Gaspar said in a statement emailed to WRTV. "The fact that our not-for-profit is being singled out for requirements is concerning."
When asked about the group's criteria for deciding who to help, a spokesman for The Bail Project said they assist low-income defendants who can't afford bail on their own.
"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," the spokesman said in an email to WRTV. "We ask questions about housing stability, transportation and, if appropriate, whether the person is interested in substance use treatment or mental health resources."
The Bail Project also considers whether an individual has a family to support or if their health may be at risk in jail because they won't have access to medication or treatment.
Sterling agrees that some people don't belong in jail. The problem, Sterling said, is The Bail Project is bailing out people accused of more than just misdemeanors and nonviolent crimes.
Travis Lang, the man charged with killing Sterling's son, was in jail in January on a cocaine-possession charge when The Bail Project said it paid a portion of his bail, with family covering the rest. At the time, Lang faced other pending cases for burglary, residential entry, and resisting law enforcement.
According to a probable cause affidavit, Lang was in the back seat of a car with McGinnis and his friend in the front. Lang and the woman argued over whether she agreed to pay him $60 or $80 for Xanax and heroin. They fought and the woman punched Lang in the face. Lang got out of the back seat and fired nine shots that struck McGinnis and his friend.
McGinnis, 24, died at the scene. The friend was treated at Eskenazi Hospital.
Sterling said Mc Ginnis was helping a friend with an addiction when he rode in the car with her that night. She was meeting a man to buy drugs, prosecutors say.
"Dylan is such a loving person, very kind-hearted," Sterling said. "He had such a great personality and didn't like conflict. He would avoid it if possible. ... He helped his friends out whenever he could or had the opportunity."
Lang is one of three people who have been helped by The Bail Project and were later accused of violence.
In January, The Bail Project paid $1,500 bail for Marcus Garvin, freeing him while he awaited trial on charges of felony battery after he allegedly stabbed a man at an east-side convenience store in December. Garvin was on bail and wearing a GPS ankle bracelet on July 24 when Marion County prosecutors say he stabbed Christie Holt to death at an east-side motel. Garvin was charged with murder on Aug. 3.
In April, The Bail Project paid $750 bail to free Deonta Williams, who had been jailed on a felony burglary charge. Williams, 20, is accused of making a fake 911 call to lure two Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department officers to him before he stabbed them in an unprovoked attack. Prosecutors charged Williams with attempted murder.
"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," the group's spokesman said in an email. "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."
The Bail Project reviews these cases to see if they might have done something differently, the spokesman said.
"What these cases truly highlight is that people in a state of crisis easily fall through the cracks," the spokesman said.
In the wake of these tragic cases, McGinnis's mother is calling for more state oversight of organizations like The Bail Project. Sterling said she has asked lawmakers to set limits on the people these organizations assist. She wants them to find a way to ensure these groups keep tabs on the people they bailout.
"You have your police officers that are out there trying to protect the public by putting these individuals in jail and then you have the charitable organization coming in and taking them back out," Sterling said.
Some Indiana lawmakers are listening.
Sen. Aaron Freeman, a Republican from Indianapolis, announced Thursday he was sponsoring a bill that would require The Bail Project and similar groups to register with the Department of Insurance and would bar them from bailing out people charged with felonies.
"These nonprofits need to have some set of standards to follow," Freeman said in a statement. "Under no circumstances should public tax dollars be used to bond criminals out of jail, and if bail is paid by a nonprofit organization, that money should go toward court administrative costs and be deducted from what is returned."
The Bail Project did get some of its money from Indianapolis taxpayers, WRTV reported in August. The group was awarded two of the city's crime-prevention grants totaling $150,000.
The public money does not pay bail, according to The Bail Project and the Central Indiana Community Foundation, which administers and awards the grants on behalf of the city. The taxpayer funds pay for services aimed at reducing recidivism and making sure defendants have transportation, jobs assistance and other services they need to ensure they attend their court hearings, officials said.
Sterling believes that public money should not go to groups like The Bail Project, especially now when Indianapolis is experiencing record violence.
She said she hopes to help Sen. Freeman and other lawmakers in their efforts to tighten control of charitable bail organizations.
"Dylan was a helper," Sterling said. "If I can help prevent another mother from getting the same phone call that I received that night, I would say that I've done my job in carrying out his legacy."
MORE: Indianapolis gave $150K to group that bailed out man accused of killing girlfriend | Hogsett says he would support audit of city grants that gave $150k to group that bailed out man accused of killing girlfriend | FOP president demanding that local leaders close the justice system's 'revolving door' | Prosecutor files attempted murder charges against man accused of luring, stabbing IMPD officers | Indianapolis gave $150K to group that bailed out man accused of killing girlfriend
Contact WRTV reporter Vic Ryckaert at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter: @vicryc.