Charity backlash bailing out defendants regardless of prosecution

There is a controversial push across the United States to release people from prison regardless of the charge against them.

SEATTLE — There’s pressure across the country, including in western Washington, to reform the cash bail system through nonprofit groups that post bail for those who can’t afford it. to permit. These groups attract criticism from the victim advocates and victims of crime they serve.

There are about 100 bail charities nationwide, including the Seattle-based Northwest Community Bail Fund (NCBF). Through donations, the NCBF said it could post bail for between 80 and 90 defendants a month while awaiting trial in King County, Snohomish and Pierce jails.

The concern raised by victims is that the NCBF is releasing people from jail on bail regardless of the charges against them. This includes those charged with “serious violent” criminal offenses, as defined by state law.

“I am for social justice and for helping the underprivileged, but why would they let out someone who has committed acts of violence against other people? And someone who has a long history of it? said domestic violence survivor Tiffany Wood of Seattle.

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Wood’s ex-boyfriend has a criminal record that includes domestic assault and breaching multiple protective orders. The NCBF released her ex-boyfriend from jail in early March after an arrest for possession of a stolen vehicle and charges stemming from another violation of a protective order meant to keep Wood and her children safe.

“To say this upset me is an understatement,” Wood said. “[My ex-boyfriend] has a long history of not showing up in court. This organization clearly did not care about the victims in these cases. Having him in prison was the only thing that made me feel safe from him.

The NCBF says their work is necessary because the current system fuels racial and economic inequality.

“The truth is, bail creates two criminal justice systems in Washington: one for people who can post bail and one for people who can’t,” the website says.

“Our work is focused on tackling the structural problems of a system that is not based on guilt or innocence, but on wealth and privilege,” said NCBF Executive Director Becky Errera. .

According to the National Bail Fund Network, the practice of bailing remand defendants out of jail, regardless of the alleged crime, is common among charitable bail funds across the country. Groups decide who they post bail for based on “resources and need”, not the type of charge.

“The needs assessment is not based on [a] charge,” said Pilar Weiss, director of the National Bail Fund Network. “[We] prioritize those at risk of losing their jobs, housing, childcare, [people who] are the main guardians of others, have a health condition that puts them even more at risk [in jail]etc.”

The local nonprofit said in 2021 it posted bail for 278 defendants with cases in the King County Superior Court system, most of which are felony cases. King County public records obtained by KING 5 show that of those charged, approximately half of those bailed out were charged with non-violent offenses such as theft of a motor vehicle, unlawful possession of a firearm, fire, identity theft and failure to register as a sex offender.

But the other half released on bail were in jail and awaiting trial for alleged crimes involving violence, including domestic assault, armed robbery, drive-by homicide, arson and rape. of a child in the first degree.

Advocates for crime victims said they were surprised to learn that the NCBF is releasing defendants from prison without a review of their charges and criminal history.

“People are shocked. They didn’t even know such a fund existed. I wish victims had more of a say when these decisions are made,” said Tiffany Attrill, victims’ attorney with the King County District Attorney’s Office. “Victims often feel forgotten. They feel like they’re not being heard, that their opinions, their thoughts, their feelings don’t matter. It feels like another layer of having no voice.”

In a 2019 domestic violence case, a Seattle man was accused of assaulting his girlfriend. Police said he was punishing her for leaving their apartment and leaving their crying baby behind.

The NCBF paid $2,000 to get him out of jail. Three weeks later, he was charged with a new crime: going back to his girlfriend and killing the baby.

Weiss of the National Bail Fund Network said highlighting outlier cases where someone is allegedly re-offending with a particularly violent crime “may invoke a certain amount of fear mongering.”

“It’s always practical for people in the criminal justice system to focus on charges that may seem scary or extreme,” Weiss said. “But these are accusations [prosecuting attorneys] chose, and they were also still eligible for bail and enjoyed a presumption of innocence.

Of the data KING 5 obtained regarding King County Superior Court cases where the NCBF bailed out a defendant in 2021, 16% were charged with a new crime within a year of their bailout.

Victims of crime and advocates have said that failing to consider the seriousness of a charge before posting bail to defendants creates a risk to public safety.

“Shame on them. Shame on them,” Angie Arabia said. Arabia’s 31-year-old son Bradley was allegedly murdered on June 17, 2021 in Seattle City Hall grounds by a released man bail from King County Jail by the NCBF.

“It ripped my soul out of me,” said Arabia, a native of Lake Charles, Louisiana. “I miss my boy.”

In this case, the defendant, 50-year-old Michael Sedejo, was originally charged with assaulting and robbing a 65-year-old man in Seattle City Hall Park on April 13, 2021. The District Attorney’s Office King County asked the court to set bail at $20,000. The prosecutor argued that bail was necessary “because of the likelihood that the defendant will commit a violent offense…The state is concerned about the safety of the community if the defendant is released from custody” .

The judge lowered bail to $5,000 and public records show the NCBF paid him in cash. Two months later, Sedejo was charged with the murder of Bradley Arabia in City Hall Park with a pocket knife.

“The prosecutor’s office told the judge he was a danger. That word should have meant something to someone, and it didn’t. And I don’t have a baby. I don’t have my son,” Arabia said.

The NCBF said when it releases someone from jail it is no different than when someone uses a for-profit bail service. He added that his work is essential in addressing systemic racism in the criminal justice system.

“We have an ‘innocence until proven guilty’ system, and the fact that we hold millions of people every year awaiting trial who have not been convicted is extremely problematic,” he said. added. said Dr. Jackie Helfgott, director of Seattle University’s Center for Crime and Justice Research. It is not affiliated with the NCBF.

Research shows that the current bail system perpetuates racism because people of color are more likely to be over-policed ​​and arrested and more likely to stay in jail without being able to post bail.

“We have a system that is permeated with systemic racism throughout the system,” Helfgott said. “The only people who should be detained before trial are those who pose a serious risk to public safety. Other than that, everyone else should be released whether they have money or not (because) people are innocent until proven guilty, and the fact that prison is a horrible place. It’s worse than jail.

Further research shows that people who are in jail with no way to get out of themselves are more likely to plead guilty whether or not they committed the crime. According to researchers at the University of Miami, defendants plead guilty 2.86 times faster than defendants who are not in custody.

“Poor people accused of crimes face a stark choice: stay in jail to defend the case or plead guilty and go home. This creates a system in which innocent people plead guilty because they cannot afford bail,” the NCBF writes on its website.

Studies show that allowing defendants to go free while awaiting trial can improve public safety. When people are in detention, they are cut off from community support, employment, educational opportunities and treatment options. Unlike the state prison system, there are few services in prison, which can lead to a higher likelihood of recidivism.

Research published in a 2017 edition of the Stanford Law Review argued for a better pretrial release policy, in part because “those detained before trial are more likely to commit future crimes, suggesting that detention may have a criminogenic effect”.

“If you cycle in and out of a prison situation, you’re more likely to stay in the criminal justice system. If you put people in jail, there’s no chance of succeeding in a prison setting, so it just compounds the problems and keeps people in the system,” said Dr Helfgott of the University of Seattle. “The longer we can keep people out of prison, connected to their support systems, in community treatment programs, the better.”

Arabia, who lost her son last year, said before posting bail, the NCBF should consider what victims have to say, or at least seriously consider releasing defendants charged with violent crimes. .

“Nobody, from the judge down, nobody considered that [in my son’s case]and it’s awful,” she said.

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