After the governor failed to bring about bail reform this year, New Haveners have stepped up to start doing so on their own.
They have created the not-for-profit “Connecticut Bail Fund,” which will raise and distribute money to make sure that arrestees aren’t sitting in jail simply because they’re poor.
That happens a lot in Connecticut, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy argued as he sought to win legislative approval to keep non-violent arrestees who can’t post bail out of detention before their day in court. The bail system, aimed at ensuring appearance in court, often puts the poor at a disadvantage: they remain in detention, face separation from families, and even lose their jobs. Malloy failed to convince legislators to approve his plan earlier this month.
Meanwhile, saying they aim to combat “wealth-based jailing,” organizers of the Connecticut Bail Fund are about to open for business in New Haven. The Connecticut Bail Fund will accept referrals from public defenders, screen clients, and pay the bail for those who qualify. It looks to expand to Bridgeport and Hartford in half a year.
The team has raised about $32,000 so far for posting bail. It will most likely begin service within two months. Sources of funding include fellowships from Yale’s Dwight Hall, the Yale Entrepreneurial Institute, the Samuel Huntington Foundation, and a private donor in New Haven.
The fund’s four cofounders — Yalies Brett Davidson, Scott Greenberg, Patrick Sullivan, and Simone Seiver — explained the program at a meeting Wednesday night at the Dixwell Stetson branch library. They also listened to feedback from a group of 20 residents, students, and workers in the criminal justice system.
“We’ve read a lot of literature and we think we’ve got a pretty good sense of how a bail fund works,” Yale senior Seiver said in an interview. “But if you have not heard from people about their firsthand experience with bail, you are not going to get a fully colored picture.”
The Wednesday discussion centered on whom should the fund serve. The question is tough, because any answer will have to balance one’s right to bail, community safety and sustainability of the fund.
Two existing bail funds in New York pay for bail less than $2,000, regardless of the type of charge involved. A Chicago Community Bond Fund gives priority to groups more likely to be victimized in jail or have special health needs, such as pregnant mothers, queer minorities, and individuals charged for political protests.
“The right to bail is so important that I hate to propagate the idea that bail is for some people and not others,” said Jane Mills from People Against Injustice. Mills said that clear-cut criteria might lead the public to believe that some people deserve bail more than others. Instead, Mills suggested setting aside some money to tap in special cases.
Paul Hammer from the Connecticut Mental Health Center agreed. He argued that having a cut-off based on bail amount “ignores a lot of problems.” For example, Hammer said there are many people who are accused of serious crimes — thus face expensive bail bonds — but are in fact innocent. Having a selection process based purely on bail amount will ignore those people. Therefore, Hammer proposed a hybrid model with a standard operating procedure (based on bail amount), and another special, more individualized screening process.
Another attendee suggested the group to consider the charges, and leave out cases that involve violence.
Claire Mufson, a recent graduate from Yale,argued against screening clients.
“If you start to do stuff that involve pretrial screening and factor in someone’s family background, history of appearance in court,” Mufson cautioned, “you make it your own trial.”
In New Haven, when the police make an arrest, they set a bail amount. If the detainee cannot afford it, a bail commissioner will step in to propose a lower amount. An arraignment follows, where the judge has the final say on how much the bail is. The Connecticut Bail Fund plans to post a bail after the arraignment.
Head local Public DefenderThomas Ullmann pointed the group to a little-known rule that could allow it to serve more people. Clients can ask judges for a 10 percent cash bound instead of a full amount, but very few people are aware of the practice. It has been on the books for a long time, but judges seldom invoke it. “The bail industry commands a lot of power,” Ullmann observed.