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New Project in Spokane Posts Bail For People Who Cannot Afford It

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Christina Kamkosi
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Spokane County’s jail population is far beyond what the 35-year-old facility was built to handle. But there’s a new program just up and running in Spokane aimed at reducing that population. It’s focused on the people who can’t afford to post bail.

“When bail was actually created, it was supposed to be set in an amount that the accused could pay,” said Robin Steinberg, CEO of a non-profit organization known as The Bail Project.

“The theory was if the amount was the correct amount somebody could pay, it would give them some skin in the game because their money would be at stake and that would be the incentive for them to come back to court,” she said.

Instead, she says, many jurisdictions set bail at such high amounts that many people can’t pay, so they sit in court until trial. Those who do, have their lives put on hold. Many lose their jobs and their housing and their families are thrown into disarray. Spokane County says three-fourths of the inmates in the county jail fit into the pre-trial category.

This is not a Spokane-specific situation. More than 10 years ago, advocates in The Bronx, New York, decided to create a revolving fund that would provide bail for low-level defendants so they could go back into the community and continue their lives while they wait for trial. Steinberg said it proved so successful that those advocates wanted to know if the idea would work elsewhere.

“Last January we launched the Bail Project, which is our national effort to scale what we learned at the revolving fund in the Bronx Freedom Fund into a national, not-for-profit organization that will scale across the country providing bail relief to tens of thousands of people," she said.
 
The Lilac City is becoming the 11th Bail Project site in the nation. Daryl McAdoo has been leading the effort to set it up here.

“This was not a site that was originally on our radar," McAdoo said. "But a group of community leaders from Spokane were already thinking of starting their own bail fund and they went to visit one of our sites in Louisville. I happened to meet them there and we connected.”

Eventually, a partnership was born.

On Friday, McAdoo and a handful of other Bail Project employees, including Angel Tomeo Sam, gathered in the lobby of the Spokane County Jail.

“Today we are waiting in the jail for some folks, our clients, who we have interviewed and decided to bail them out of jail," Tomeo Sam said. "They are folks who would otherwise not be able to afford bail to get out and fight their case from the outside.”

Of the four people released, one is a young Native American woman who had a warrant out for her arrest. Tomeo Sam says the woman is getting her life together and working toward her GED. Another is a college student from Yakima who came to Spokane for the holidays and wound up arrested in a family dispute.

One by one they emerge. They’re offered lunch and a few other simple creature comforts. McAdoo and others tell them the story about The Bail Project and why they were chosen.

Angel Tomeo Sam holds the title of bail disruptor. She identifies potential clients in the jail, interviews them, makes arrangements for them to be taken home and helps with other life-related details. This work is personal for her. Tomeo Sam was once herself incarcerated. Now she’s a community activist who believes jail is not an effective way to help troubled people overcome their problems.

“Add the overcrowding, being away from friends and family and your community and away from resources, there’s really not much you can do, especially if you’re set with these issues, substance abuse or homelessness. This isn’t a remedy for either one of those,” Tomeo Sam said.

Sam and her fellow bail disruptor, Sabrina Ryan, will apply Bail Project rules that govern which people they choose for whom to post bail.

“Are you having a problem with coming with the money yourself? Is your bail low enough to where we can pay it and it does not cause a substantial financial burden for our revolving fund?" McAdoo said. "And then do you have contact information that we can verify and give us some type of sense that you are willing and desire to come back to court?”

McAdoo and CEO Robin Steinberg say the project will consider people facing bail of $5,000 or less.

“We are looking to make sure we are identifying people where we have effective ways of notifying them about their next court date," Steinberg said.

"We’re looking to see if our bail disruptors and advocates can support people and connect them to voluntary services they may need in the community. We’re looking to see what the results in their case outcomes are. Research is pretty clear and the data from our Bronx Freedom Fund is pretty clear that once somebody gets bail paid, their case dispositions wind up being more positive and that leads to more positive life outcomes," she said.

Once the people are bailed out, advocates try to connect them with services.

Christina Kamkosi says incarceration is not just a criminal justice issue, it’s a public health issue. Kamkosi is the Empire Health Foundation’s liaison to the Bail Project in Spokane.

“We want to start going upstream, rather than treating the symptoms so people have a chance to be productive members of society,” Kamkosi said.

Kamkosi says the foundation will help fund some of the community services for Bail Project clients. It will also work with Whitworth University to help track their lives during the time and after their court cases are resolved, to find out whether the bail investments were good ones.

The Bail Project expects to become fully operational in Spokane right after the New Year.