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How Detroit’s lone ‘bail disruptor’ is trying to reform criminal justice

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Rasha Almulaiki in Detroit’s 36th District Court House. - SAMUEL COREY
  • Samuel Corey
  • Rasha Almulaiki in Detroit’s 36th District Court House.

Rasha Almulaiki is at work inside Detroit's Division II Wayne County Jail, trying to select people with the right criteria to bail out. The qualifications are relatively straightforward: Bond must not be above $5,000, and they must have no other warrants out for their arrests.

But Almulaiki is not a bail bondsman. Rather, she's a "bail disrupter" — the only one in Detroit.

As Almulaiki explains, her goal is "to disrupt this current system by providing measures to alleviate those who can't afford their bail." She works under two separate, but coordinating, groups: the Detroit Justice Center, a newly founded nonprofit fighting to make Detroit the first "Restorative Justice City," and the Bail Project, a national initiative working to help non-convicted people maintain their presumed innocence outside of jail.

The project got its start in 2007 by the Bronx Freedom Fund, a nonprofit led by Robin Steinberg in the South Bronx, New York, as a way to pay for pretrial incarcerates' bail who otherwise couldn't afford it. The idea was to create a recyclable cash fund, where money used to bail an individual out was given back to the organization after the previously detained person showed up to their court date, where it could then be used again for another person detained pretrial, ad infinitum.

The concept has spread rather quickly. In the past few years, the Bronx Freedom Fund sprouted into the Bail Project in order to go national, expanding their work to many cities around the U.S. They've been busy: The Bail Project now has affiliates in Queens, St. Louis (one for the city and the county), Tulsa, Louisville, San Diego, Compton, and of course, Detroit.

The Bail Project specifically extends its work to cities that have high pretrial populations, significant racial disparities in their jails, high rates of poverty, and policies of over-policing.

This past year, the Bail Project partnered with the DJC because of their broader goals for reforming the way we lock people up in our country. It's not surprising that both organizations don't just want to simply end cash bail — they want to end the broader problem of pretrial incarceration, and the larger issue of mass incarceration.

"Our goal is to end the threat of pretrial incarceration because we know that pretrial incarceration is one of the key drivers of both mass incarceration and racial disparities in the system," explains Camilo Ramirez, communications director for the Bail Project.

For now, however, eliminating or even reducing the impact of cash bail is the first step to begin shrinking incarceration levels that have been rising exponentially over the past 50 years.

U.S. exception

Commercial bail is largely a United States problem: Its use only exists within the borders of our country and the Philippines. In Canada, you can actually go to jail for engaging in such practices. In the U.S., former Attorney General Eric Holder and the American Bar Association have called for abolishing commercial bail, arguing the commercial bail industry is inherently unjust because of the way it exploits poor individuals, forcing them to pay a fine without ever being convicted of a crime.

Of course, commercial bail has proven itself quite lucrative and, as such, lobbyists have found ways to keep the practice around. According to The Atlantic, the bail bond industry retains about $2 billion each year. Bail bondsmen have capitalized off the fact that one of the greatest sources of expanding the criminal justice system comes from individuals being detained before their trial.

As a 2014 Bureau of Justice Statistics report unveiled, 95 percent of the rise of individuals caged in American jails since 2000 was due to "the increase in the unconvicted population."

But what has been business for some has led to massive debt for indigent individuals charged with crimes. In a 2016 report by the Prison Policy Initiative, the median annual income of individuals in jail prior to their trial is $15,109. These already financially struggling individuals pay a bail bondsman to get out of prison, which then pushes them further into poverty and debt.

Amanda Alexander, director of the DJC, provided an example of this phenomenon.

"One of the clients we had, where he was [locked up] for a week, had lost his job, but he and his partner were sharing childcare for their four kids, so she had to actually quit her job to stay at home with the kids because they couldn't find childcare," she says. "That family went from two incomes to zero because of the inability to afford $500 for bond."

As Ramirez of the Bail Project explains, the charged are not the only ones footing an expanding criminal justice bill. The annual cost of people sitting in jail who have not been convicted of a crime is an expensive tab for Americans — "about $14 billion per year," he says.

Critics of bail funds note that without money, nothing is incentivizing people to show up to their court date. But according to people from the Bail Project and DJC, this notion is patently false.

"All they need is adequate court reminders, help with transportation — those wraparound services that we are trying to cultivate and also provide to our clients," Almulaiki explains. "[With these services], there is a retention of 96 percent of people to court."

That number comes from the statistics gathered by the Bronx Freedom Fund, which found that their clients returned to their court date at this rate as long as they were provided the proper services and reminders to help them get there.

Without these services, money bail has sat in its replacement, keeping people locked up without being tried unless they pay.

As Alexander explains, "Bail is a sort of ransom: 'You can get your loved one back if you pay this money.'"

The work of a bail disrupter

It takes a full day for Almulaiki to bail people out of jail. The simple reason, she says, is that none of the criminal justice institutions in the city — the Wayne County Jail, 36th District Court House, or the Third Judicial Circuit Court (which often houses inmate documents) — communicate with one another. So Almulaiki has to move from space to space, filling out documents and displaying receipts to bail just one person from jail. Since Wayne County doesn't have a public defenders office, she's on her own. Most of her clients don't have an attorney for her to contact, even though they've already been charged, processed, and incarcerated.

"Bailing people out is not like it is in the movies," Almulaiki explains.

When she meets people needing to bail out their friends and loved ones, she tells them, "If you have to bail someone out of jail, take the day off work."

At least that's how it is in Wayne County. In Oakland County, the only other county where Almulaiki has bailed someone out, the entire process took just one hour.

For the past several weeks, Almulaiki has forged positive relationships with people in Detroit's criminal justice spaces (in addition to the local Chase Bank where she extracts money donated from the Bail Project used to bail people from jail). Her journey starts by requesting about 200 names of inmates. She then proceeds by screening them to see who qualifies to get bailed out. After interviewing potential clients, and narrowing her search, she then asks for another background check on detained individuals to ensure they don't have a warrant out for their arrest in another county.

Almulaiki often meets pretrial incarcerates who, if she can help them get out of jail, have nowhere to go after. The problems for these individuals, she explains, are broader than just being locked up without conviction.

"They're also homeless, and it could also be the fact that they can't return to their actual home because of some court order," she says. "It's just layers upon layers of issues that we see our clients encounter. It's been incredible to see, every day, the magnitude that we're dealing with here."

So far, with the help of the Bail project, the Detroit Justice Center has been able to bail out about 25 people detained pretrial — 23 of which arrived at their court date. This means that, so far, 92 percent of the time people have shown up to their trial without money incentivizing them. Ten of the DJC's clients have already had their cases dismissed entirely.

One of the individuals they bailed out, but who has not yet been tried, is Grant Flennoy Sr. A retired landlord in Detroit, Flennoy has a masters degree in industrial engineering from Wayne State University, and lives on Detroit's west side.

While some neighbors were trying to break into his home, Flennoy says he defended himself through his window, telling them he would use his weapon if they broke in; the neighbors fled the scene.

Later that night, some police officers knocked on Flennoy's door. Initially relieved that they had arrived to help him, Flennoy says he was shocked when the officers arrested him and charged him with assault with a deadly weapon. He was in incarcerated for a week before Almulaiki paid his bail.

"I'm in here with some people who I shouldn't be around," says Flennoy, who wasn't able to sleep because he feared for his safety in the county jail.

Although only detained for one week, Flennoy was forced into debt because he was removed from his everyday life.

"I couldn't do anything. My credit score went from 750 to 612," he says. "Financially I'm in a strap and trying to get out of it."

Had he never been bailed out, of course, Flennoy Sr. could have become more financially insecure.

Why Detroit?

There was a confluence of influences that galvanized Alexander to help start a bail fund in Detroit. As she's noted, pretrial detention isn't just an issue in the U.S., but especially in the Motor City. As such, Alexander has been talking for four years with Detroit residents about the city's lack of a bail fund and its successes elsewhere.

In 2016, Bridge Magazine reported that 41 percent of people sitting in Michigan jails are there because they cannot afford to pay bail. In Wayne County, that figure rises to 60 percent.

Alexander says that points to how the system treats black Detroiters, or more than 80 percent of the city's population.

"If you are a young black kid in Detroit, and you look at the things that are tailor-made for you, right now we have some pretty tailor-made pathways to get you from elementary school to the juvenile justice system, to prison," explains Alexander. "Right now, what the county wants to build for you is an even larger jail than what the numbers indicate would ever be necessary."

While teaching at the University of Michigan's law school, Alexander's students explored how segregated southeast Michigan has become. They recognized that black Detroiters were going to poorer schools and ending up in prison, and white students from the suburbs — some living mere minutes apart by car — were attending well-invested schools and going on to college.

For real, positive change, both the Bail Project and DJC want wraparound services to be instituted into our political structure. Taxpayers, they argue, should pay for these services on the front end, so we don't have more people in jail, and an even higher tab due to that, on the back end.

Alexander clarifies that these services for individuals who have not been tried should not be court-mandated — people should not be locked up for never having committed a crime.

"In general, there needs to be more robust social support for people, anti-poverty programs, but the idea that someone should have to get to the point where they are at the court to get those things, that's not the war we're fighting for," she says.

"The idea is that they are trying to get their lives back on track after coming back from prison, and we can remove whatever legal barrier that is keeping them from doing that."

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