Columbia Group Seeks Equity with Bail Fund
When a person is arrested, staying in jail is often a matter of whether they can afford to pay bail. For already vulnerable people, staying in jail could mean losing their apartment, their job or custody of their children.
Columbia group Race Matters, Friends began developing a way to address this problem in 2017. Their solution is the RMF Community Bail Fund, which bails people out of jail who can’t afford to pay it.
“There's a lot of money sucked out of the community, largely people who don't have it to spare. If we can make a dent in that and give people a leg up, so they don't have to go into debt to a bail bond company, that's one less bill they're going to have to pay,” bail fund core team member Carol Brown said.
After more than a year of planning and fundraising, the fund launched about two months ago. Team members bail clients out of Boone County Jail and help them with paperwork and making their court date. With only five women in its core team, the fund has bailed out eight people from Boone County Jail and is working to bail out more.
Core team member Peggy Placier said she became passionate about the fund because she has seen the difference it makes for a defendant to be able to go to court in clothes of their own choosing.
“[I realized] before the bail fund got going that this would be an issue for people charged with crimes that if they could appear as free citizens, before the court, who had not been convicted of anything, they would be viewed very differently by the public,” she said.
In the fund’s development, Race Matters, Friends outlined three criteria to decide who could be bailed out. Defendants must live in Boone County, be charged with a nonviolent offense and have a bail equal to or less than 2,000 dollars.
While the team would like to raise the limit in the future, Placier said the current guidelines ensure the fund can continue to help people who shouldn’t have to wait in jail before their court date.
MU associate law professor Ben Trachtenberg said costly bail amounts put many at risk if defendants cannot afford to pay them.
“Many people who are in jail awaiting trial lose their jobs or might have their children taken away from them and put into the foster care system. People who are looking after elderly relatives, all of a sudden, can't be caretakers for them. So it's not just the person who's locked up who is suffering from the cash bail system. It's everyone who depends on them,” he said.
Brown said the team, as community members without a formal background in law, encountered many challenges in getting the fund started.
“None of us knew anything about bail. We had to learn everything. It took over a year to figure it out. And you know, we did it. It’s not rocket science. It’s just hard finding all the pieces and fitting them together,” she said.
Brown said one of the largest hurdles was getting the fund on the public call list of bail services at the Boone County Jail. That means the fund is listed alongside traditional bail bond companies as an option for defendants who qualify. The fund was put on the list March 1, so the fund immediately became active.
Placier said it’s important defendants know what makes the RMF fund different than bail bond companies.
“The bail bonds companies, up until this point, have had a corner on this particular service. So we are different. We're not a bonding agent. We're not a bail bond company. We pay the total amount of bail and the defendant owes us nothing,” she said.
Brown and Placier describe their active funds as a revolving door. They deplete their funds as they take on more and more clients but gain the money back if defendants appear for court. So far, all clients with court dates have appeared. The fund raises money through events, the Race Matters, Friends website and online fundraisers. The fund also joined the National Bail Fund Network so news of it could spread outside Columbia.
Placier said the big challenge ahead of the fund is to increase their small core group to a larger team.
“Right now, we just have a small core group, and we need more volunteers. We have positions for just about everybody. We need PR people. We obviously need fundraising expertise,” she said.
Placier said the team will host a volunteer orientation in the near future.