ICC opposes bill to place limits on charitable bail funds

By Victoria Arthur

Statehouse Correspondent for Indiana’s Catholic Newspapers

The Indiana Catholic Conference is challenging a bill recently passed by the Indiana Senate that would restrict the ability of charitable groups to cover bail costs for people awaiting trial who cannot afford to pay it themselves.

Senate Bill 8 was introduced early in the 2022 legislative session as part of a package of bills aimed at fighting crime in Marion County and elsewhere in the state. The measure aims to regulate charitable bail organizations by requiring that they register with the state Department of Insurance, as bail bond companies do. Additionally, it would limit a charitable group to posting bond just twice in a 180-day period and for bail amounts of $2,000 or less.

Those restrictions, the ICC and other opponents argue, only widen the gap in a criminal justice system that already places the poor at a disadvantage.

“This is not the way that the criminal justice system should work – that only those who have money have the advantage of being out of jail until their trial, particularly on a nonviolent offense,” said Angela Espada, executive director of the ICC, the public policy voice of the Catholic Church in Indiana. “Remember that when people are arrested, they are presumed innocent until proven guilty. If they cannot make bail and have to remain in jail until their day in court, they could lose their job; they could lose their house; and families could be put out on the street.”

Espada, a former deputy prosecutor in Marion County, outlined additional concerns in a recent letter to the House committee now considering the bill.

“Because Indiana relies on cash bail, a significant portion of our jails are filled with pretrial detainees – people who are still legally innocent, but who have had bail set against them that they cannot afford to pay,” she wrote in the Feb. 7 letter to the House Courts and Criminal Code Committee. “They are subject to the harms of incarceration, including worsened physical and behavioral health outcomes, and a greater likelihood of future justice system involvement.

“The Church cannot support any policy changes that would result in more Hoosiers being incarcerated before their guilt has been established by the court.”

Monica Smith, a Catholic and attorney with extensive experience in criminal and civil litigation, was among those testifying against Senate Bill 8 during a January committee hearing. The Indianapolis native, who has long advocated for reforms in the criminal justice system in Indiana and nationwide, currently serves as the associate director of policy and advocacy for the nationally-based Vera Institute of Justice.

“People forget that most Americans don’t even have a $1,000 in their savings accounts,” said Smith, a lifelong member of Holy Angels Parish in Indianapolis. “So, anytime a monetary amount is set on a person’s freedom, it really creates two systems of justice: one for people who have access to cash and collateral, and another one for people who do not.”

Smith is currently dedicated to a Vera Institute project called the “In Our Backyards Initiative,” which focuses on incarceration in small cities and rural areas. She said her testimony before the Senate committee was to “highlight that even though it was presented as a package for Marion County, it would have repercussions throughout the entire state.”

“One thing that we know now is that rural counties spend 1.7 times more money on pre-trial detention than Marion County spends,” Smith said. “If more people are held on unaffordable bail and if charitable bail organizations aren’t able to assist them, then, naturally, the pre-trial population is going to rise in those places.”

But the primary driving factors behind Senate Bill 8 and a similar measure, House Bill 1300, are some recent murders and other violent attacks in Marion County. Sen. Aaron Freeman (R-Indianapolis), the author of Senate Bill 8 and sponsor of the recently passed House Bill 1300, points to several individuals who went on to commit heinous crimes after having their bail posted by a national not-for-profit organization called The Bail Project.

The ICC counters that supporters of the bill should consider the criteria used by these charitable groups, including some faith-based organizations.

“Charities only provide bail on nonviolent offenses, and most nonviolent people don’t suddenly commit violent acts,” Espada said. “So, if the measure is in response to murder and other violent actions, why limit these charitable institutions?”

Freeman also questions the leverage that this and similar organizations have when it comes to the primary purpose of bail: ensuring that the accused shows up in court.

“I see a difference between a bail bondsman, who has a financial interest in bringing that defendant back and making sure they appear in front of a judge, and a charitable bail organization that may or may not be in Indiana and may or may not have any ties to the community,” said Freeman, a former Marion County deputy prosecutor, during a Senate hearing on his bill. “What incentive do they have to make sure that person appears in court?”

But Smith, who has served as a public defender in several states, argues otherwise.

“I can tell you that, in my experience, people are so grateful that a stranger would go out of their way to help them at the worst moment of their life,” Smith said. “And the vast majority of people return to court. They want to have their case resolved. They want to get on with their lives.”

In her letter to legislators, Espada noted that “in parts of Indiana, the service provided by charitable bail funds is perhaps the sole intervention available for pre-trial detainees who do not have the means to afford bail.”

She also pointed to a pastoral statement from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops entitled “Responsibility, Rehabilitation, and Restoration: A Catholic Perspective on Crime and Criminal Justice.”

“As the bishops of the Catholic Church in the United States remind us, ‘We seek justice, not vengeance. We believe punishment must have clear purposes: protecting society and rehabilitating those who violate the law,’” Espada stated in her letter. “The ICC believes that the restrictions on charitable bail funds in Senate Bill 8 would not further the protection of society and the just rehabilitation of the incarcerated, but merely prohibit charitable institutions from performing more acts of mercy.”

To follow this and other priority legislation of the ICC, visit www.indianacc.org. This website includes access to I-CAN, the Indiana Catholic Action Network, which offers the Church’s position on key issues. Those who sign up for I-CAN receive alerts on legislation moving forward and ways to contact their elected representatives.