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Saturday, April 13, 2024

Porter: The hypocrisy of the charitable bail debate

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House Republicans contend that regulation of charitable bail organizations will put them “on the same footing” as bail bond companies. However, House Bill (HB) 1300 starts off on the wrong foot and never finds its rhythm. 

In its current form, HB 1300 would continue the disturbing and counterproductive policy of treating charitable bail organizations more harshly than for-profit bail bondsmen.

The legislation seeks to severely limit the number of people who charitable bail organizations can help while also connecting them with social services; it will only exacerbate the jail overcrowding issue faced by law enforcement across our state.

Bail bonds companies are unencumbered by such limits and may post bonds for as many people as it takes to increase their profit margins. They can also post on any case where a judge sets a bond regardless of the charge.

Some people argue that these for-profit companies are already regulated, which is true as bail bonds companies can take people’s money and property as part of their business, but they are regulated as a matter of consumer protection, not as part of an enlightened public safety and criminal justice policy.

Charitable bail organizations operate in a very different way by providing bail assistance to low-income Hoosiers at no cost to them or their family. Often, these organizations also connect those they assist to resources like substance abuse treatment, housing, food pantries and other services based on their needs.
And they do all this for free.

Their goal is not to make a profit but to level the playing field so people who are too poor to afford bail (or a bondsman’s nonrefundable fee) can also get their day in court and benefit from the presumption of innocence. In fact, as a 501(c)(3), charitable bail organizations are regulated by governing rules and statutes in Indiana and federal laws. They must also pass external audits by independent accounting firms every year.

Restricting charitable bail organizations while propping up the bail bonds industry is like cracking down on food pantries to protect the interests of a restaurant association.

Charitable bail organizations emerged in response to the two-tiered system of justice that cash bail creates. As you read this, most people incarcerated in the Marion County Jail are not actually serving sentences. They are in jail awaiting court dates because a judge set a cash bail amount they cannot afford.

This practice disproportionately impacts people of color who are more likely to have higher cash bail set and less likely to be able to afford it. It also goes against what the Indiana Supreme Court has emphasized is the purpose of bail: “to ensure the presence of the accused without the hardship of incarceration before guilt has been proven and while the presumption of innocence is to be given effect.”

The issue of bail is about whether two people accused of the exact same crime should get different treatment from the justice system based on how much money they have. Should the presumption of innocence apply to all or just those with necessary resources to pay bail?

HB 1300 does nothing to address this fundamental issue, but instead seeks to punish charitable bail organizations that are motivated not by the allure of profit, but rather the noble purpose of helping some of our most troubled and disadvantaged fellow Hoosiers.

State Rep. Gregory W. Porter, D-Indianapolis, is ranking Democrat of the House Ways and Means Committee and member of the Indiana Black Legislative Caucus (IBLC).

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