9 Investigates

Community bail funds: How some say they help level ‘unbelievably unfair’ justice system

ORLANDO, Fla. — As protests around the country spark a bigger conversation about criminal justice reform, community bail funds, which help people accused of low-level, non-violent crimes pay their way out of jail before trial, are seeing a huge boost in donations.

Channel 9 investigative reporter Karla Ray learned that’s true for a community bail fund started here in Orlando just a few months ago. The Community Bail Fund, managed by Matt Morgan of Morgan and Morgan law firm, has seen more than $42,000 in donations since Saturday, in the wake of George Floyd’s death.

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Such bail funds are trending nationwide in an effort to level the playing field in the criminal justice system, which Morgan said is stacked against the poor and people of color.

County jails in Central Florida and across the country are filled with many inmates accused of bondable offenses, who simply cannot afford bail.

The amount of a bond is set with the aim of guaranteeing a defendant’s presence at trial. However, for those who cannot afford bail, even a few hundred dollars can be a life sentence itself.

“It’s an unbelievably unfair caste system,” Morgan said. “The impacts on that, across your entire life, are overwhelming. You lose your job, you lose your housing, and most of the time you’re going to take a quick plea deal, which will make it really hard for you to get a job in the future.”

This week, bolstered by an influx of donations, the fund will help the 100th person since March 15 get out of jail before trial.

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“Our goal has been, since March, to bail five people out a day, and it can get complicated for a variety of different reasons, but we’re scaling that up because we’ve had this influx of cash,” Morgan said. “So today, we’re trying to bail out 25 people.”

Soon, those whom the bail fund has helped Ed

will receive another form of help from the faith community.

“I think the phrase is ‘innocent until proven guilty,’ but now, it becomes ‘incarcerated until proven rich,’” said Dr. Joel Hunter, a longtime pastor and chairman for the Community Resource Network.

Hunter is part of a faith team joining forces with the Community Bail Fund to provide support in the form of services and check-ins with those who are awaiting trial.

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“The faith community gets to participate in the justice system, and actually make a difference in racial justice, specifically during this time,” Hunter said.

The increase in community bail fund contributions across the country has sparked a larger conversation about whether the cash bond system is outdated.

“Poor people should not just be sitting in custody pre-trial when wealthier people, who may have done more violent crimes, are walking amongst us,” Orange-Osceola State Attorney Aramis Ayala said.

Ayala has taken steps within her office to change how certain low-level crimes are punished, shifting to restorative justice. She said scaling that could lead to changes people are demanding in protests around the country.

After all, the reason George Floyd was stopped by police in the first place was a question about a possible counterfeit $20 bill.

“When you’re over-policing, and increasing the possibility of incarceration for low-level crimes, you increase the possibility of having encounters: therefore, violent encounters,” Ayala said. “And in this case, nationally we’re seeing deadly encounters with law enforcement, for non-violent type things.”

Karla Ray

Karla Ray, WFTV.com

Karla Ray anchors Eyewitness News This Morning on Saturday and Sundays, and is an investigative reporter for the 9 Investigates unit.