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The Bail Project, ACLU sue to stop new limits on charities that pay bail for the needy

Jail Handcuffs
Posted at 10:05 AM, May 04, 2022
and last updated 2022-05-23 09:17:16-04

INDIANAPOLIS — The Bail Project and the ACLU of Indiana on Wednesday filed a lawsuit seeking to block a new state law that imposes strict limits on charities that pay bail for poor people who face criminal charges.

The law would impose strict limits on charities like the Bail Project that pay bail for Hoosiers, who can't afford it.

"We are particularly targeted by this law and only our work as a charitable organization and the one that exists in the State of Indiana," said Twyla Carter, legal director for the Bail Project.

Under the new law, which takes effect July 1, charitable bail organizations must register with the Indiana Department of Insurance and can only assist people charged with misdemeanors and non-violent felonies as long as the accused has never been previously convicted of a violent felony.

Gov. Eric Holcomb signed the new rules under House Enrolled Act 1300 into law on March 15. They go into effect July 1.

“This new law singles out charitable bail organizations in Indiana, which for all practical purposes means The Bail Project,” Ken Falk, ACLU of Indiana's Legal Director, said in a statement. “This unconstitutional attack on The Bail Project will hurt low-income Hoosiers in the criminal legal system who will have to sit in jail while presumed innocent because they cannot afford bail.”

The suit filed Wednesday in the U.S. District Court in Indianapolis argues that the new law violates The Bail Project’s First Amendment rights and rights under the equal protection clause.

“The Bail Project exists because the use of cash bail discriminates against the poor and erodes the presumption of innocence. The data is also clear that Black communities bear the brunt of these abuses," Twyla Carter, The Bail Project's national director of legal and policy, said. “Our goal from day one has been to demonstrate that cash bail is not needed to ensure return to court and to offer solutions for a more effective, equitable and humane pretrial system."

Since 2018, the Bail Project has bonded out nearly 1,000 Hoosiers facing criminal charges. Of those people, 800 are in Indianapolis.

"I hope the Indiana Attorney General will vigorously defend the State of Indiana in this case to protect the citizens of the state," said Sen. Aaron Freeman, R-Indianapolis, who sponsored the Indiana Senate's version of the bill.

The Bail Project received backlash after three of its clients made bail and were later accused of committing violent crimes. Nikki Sterling's son Dylan McGinnis, 24, was shot to death on Oct. 1, 2021, allegedly by a man whose bail had been paid in part by The Bail Project.

Sterling advocated for the new law, speaking to lawmakers multiple times.

"I think (the new law) doesn't prevent them from operating within the state of Indiana," Sterling told WRTV Wednesday. "They're still allowed to operate. And really, you know, I read in the article that it's going to impact low-income Hoosiers, but my statement would be only those that have committed violent crimes."

Marion County prosecutors charged Travis Lang with murder in McGinnis' death. Lang was free on bail in connection with a cocaine possession charge when he allegedly shot McGinnis.

Some of Lang's bail money was funded by The Bail Project.

The law, Sterling said, keeps violent criminals in jail, where they can't hurt people like her son.

"Until anybody is able to walk or spend time in my shoes, they'll never understand the importance of protecting the citizens and protecting families," Sterling said.

Carter says what happened to Sterling's son was tragic. She also says these situations are rare.

"The person accused of taking the life of her beloved son was somebody who could not afford the cash bail amount which is what we posted and he also a secured bond which a bail bondsmen posted. It highlights the double standard that we are seeing with this law that only the Bail Project is being targeted," said Carter.

Supporters of the new law say it regulates non-profit groups like The Bail Project in the same way the state regulates private bond companies.

Sen. Aaron Freeman, who sponsored the bill, said he hopes the Indiana Attorney General will "vigorously defend the state of Indiana in this case to protect the citizens of the state."

Opponents say the new rules make it more difficult to be poor in Indiana. Falk says that's why the lawsuit was filed against the state.

"It's the judge who decides, so all these people who are released on bail through the bail project could be released if they had the money through their own means, or bails bond, churches, relatives, etc. so it's not fair to point fingers at the Bail project," said Falk.

Carter says the new rules will significantly impact the less fortunate presumed innocent until proven guilty.

"While this law attacks our particular advocacy, the real harm is to the community of poor Hoosiers who live in Indiana and the devasting impact it has on people who cannot afford to pay jail when they are in jail before a trial," said Carter. "It is unconscionable that instead of working to take money out of the system and make it more just, members of the legislature and the governor chose to target one of the only lifelines poor Hoosiers have when their liberty and due process rights are at stake."

The Bail Project is still operating, supporting its clients as they go through the criminal legal system. The nonprofit received $150,000 of taxpayer dollars between 2019 and 2021.

Carter says the nonprofit is willing to work with lawmakers on purposing different languages in the bill that would allow them to work with lawmakers and other stakeholders in Indiana to review data.

WRTV has requested the Bail Project's data report.

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 | Mom wants The Bail Project reined in after her son was gunned down in Indianapolis | Senate proposal would require additional oversight for The Bail Project | Lawmakers adopt new rules for The Bail Project: Bill goes to the governor's desk

Contact WRTV reporter Vic Ryckaert at victor.ryckaert@wrtv.com or on Twitter: @vicryc.