Bail Bargaining

UMN grad student battles pre-trial imprisonment through the bail system

Art by Taylor Daniels

Art by Taylor Daniels

Over the last year, Simon Cecil has found himself stationed outside of the Hennepin County Jail nearly 40 times. Each time he is waiting for a complete stranger. He only knows their name and what their face looks like from a mugshot—yet he has posted their bail and granted them freedom. In return, he merely asks that they attend their court date.

Cecil, a 34-year-old graduate student of business and public policy at the University of Minnesota, does not do this out of kindness alone, but to bring change to the bail system.

“From our point of view the system is unjust at its core,” said Cecil. “There’s just no space in an equitable democracy for an institution of justice that separates its members based on financial standing.”

Bail is assessed on a situational basis by the county judge and is used to ensure arrestees attend their court dates. Depending on the severity of charges, judges will assess higher or lower bails with a promise that the money will be returned upon attendance of a defendant’s court date. If bail cannot be made, the defendant will be required to remain in jail until their trial, which can take months to occur.

According to federal data, between 60 to 70 percent of the nearly 750,000 inmates confined around the U.S. at any given time have not been convicted of a crime and are awaiting trial.

“People who don’t make bail often receive harsher sentences,” Cecil said, adding to a laundry list of ways bail negatively affects impoverished inmates, “and they can’t work in jail, which can make them lose their job, lose their housing, and even struggle to support their families.”

After looking into the ethics surrounding bail and analyzing similar efforts in large cities such as Chicago and New York, Cecil created the Minnesota Freedom Fund. The fund is a nonprofit dedicated to posting bail and ensuring adequate legal counsel for individuals charged with misdemeanors and who cannot pay their way out of jail. David Whitney, Janet Andriano, and Adam Raul, alumni of Wesleyan, Humphrey, and a Carlson MBA student, respectively, also assist with the operation of the organization.

In its current state, the Freedom Fund seeks to act as replacement for bail bond agencies, which profit off of individuals and families unable to pay the costs of bail themselves. This is an industry that almost exclusively targets impoverished demographics.

“Broadly it is a class issue,” Cecil said. “If you’re a low income person, you’ll likely end up working with a bail agent.”

Bail bonds were created during the western expansion to states such as California when settlers in jail didn’t have nearby family to pay for their release.

“The United States is one of only two places with a commercial bail bond system,” said Joshua Page, a professor of sociology at the University of Minnesota, Philippines being the only other country with the industry. “A number of other states do not rely on for-profit bail,” he added—these include a number of Minnesota’s neighbors, including Wisconsin and Illinois.

Although stopping the exploitation of the poor is a primary drive for Cecil, there are many other parallel issues that are consequences of the bail system.

Research done by prosecutors for a lawsuit made against Cook County in Illinois, which encompasses Chicago, indicated that those unable to make bail for the smallest of offences were not only far more likely to be convicted, but 10 times more likely to be sentenced to a state prison. The lawsuit argues that this is a direct violation of the 8th Amendment, which prohibits the use of excessive bail—in this case, factoring in the inability for the incarcerated to seek legal services, loss of work, and subjection to personal injury by other inmates.

Reports published by NPR and the Huffington Post have also drawn a correlation between the inability to post bail and the perpetuation of more severe crimes and prison suicide.

Although funding for the Minnesota Freedom Fund has been sustained by several fellowships granted by the University, Cecil now plans to raise even more money as a means to tackle larger caseloads with higher bail amounts. These include DUI cases, which can run up to $10,000, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement cases—which rarely are assigned bail, and even more rarely paid.

“Bail funds are not a solution,” said Cecil. “The most important work will be the push for a complete overhaul of the criminal justice system.”