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IndyCAN pushes to end money bail in Marion County

September 1, 2016 | Indianapolis Star | Link to Article

Doris Hill forgot to pay a $250 speeding ticket.

When she went to pay the delinquent ticket, she was told she wasn't allowed to pay it. That there was a warrant out for her arrest.

"When I got to the sheriff's office, I told them I wanted to pay my ticket," she said. "They said: 'No, we have to arrest you.'"

She spent two days in jail while waiting to see a judge who would eventually waive the $500 bond she couldn't afford to pay.

Hill joined the People's Hearing on Criminal Justice Reform at New Direction Church on Thursday night. The discussion, sponsored by the Indianapolis Congregation Action Network (IndyCAN), included input from community members regarding what aspects of the Marion County criminal justice system they would like to see changed.

Speakers also discussed the negative aspects of money bail, which Hill said puts marginalized communities at a disadvantage because low-level offenders often can't afford to post bail. As a result, they can spend up to six months waiting in jail.

In his State of the City address in May, Mayor Joe Hogsett pushed for criminal justice reform in the city, creating a task force to study the system and make recommendations to the Criminal Justice Planning Council by the end of 2016.

Thursday night's event was a way for residents to become part of that reform conversation, said the Rev. Juard Barnes, IndyCAN's community organizer. It was also a call to action: IndyCAN released the results of the Live Free study, a 19-county study that compared Marion County with other counties of similar size across the country.

It's easy for people from marginalized communities such as African-Americans or Latinos to become entangled in a system that puts them at a socioeconomic disadvantage, Barnes said.

In Marion County, African-Americans are more than three times as likely to be incarcerated as whites. If they're arrested on a low-level offense and can't afford to post bail, they'll have to wait behind bars.

According to the study, 44 percent of people who have their charges dismissed spend more than 30 days in jail, while 5 percent of those people spend six or more months in jail.

Members of the mayor's task force were in attendance Thursday, including David Hampton, the committee chair and deputy mayor of neighborhoods, who spoke about the need for reform so offenders with mental illness and drug addiction can receive the help they need.

"In essence, what we're doing is incarcerating individuals who really need help and treatment," he said.

He said the top mental health care provider in the county is the Marion County Jail. That's why criminal justice reform is needed, he said. It's important to examine the inefficiencies in Marion County to better serve the public.

Nathaniel McGuire, a mental health counselor, said he supported the anti-money bail initiatives because he has seen the way this jail time affects offenders.

"Some people get depressed and never recover from something that simple," he said. "You begin to live a life of 'less than' just because you can't believe or think you could do something greater because you just went to jail one time."

He said although it disproportionately affects members of the black and Latino communities, it also affects taxpayers whose money is being used to keep these offenders in jail.

Barnes said he hoped Thursday night's event would empower people while also bringing attention to an issue he hopes the mayor will take into consideration as part of his administration's reform efforts.

"There's a system that has been trapping people," Barnes said, "and we want to unlock the door to that trap."

The report's findings

The Live Free report that was presented at Thursday night's discussion is available on IndyCAN's website. Here are some of the report's findings: 

  • Marion County's per capita jail population doubled from 1985 to 2014, from 1.1 to 2.14 people incarcerated per 1,000 residents.
  • The number of women incarcerated increased by 145 percent during that period. 
  • Black people in Marion County are 3.1 times as likely to be in jail as white people.
  • Compared with 11 midwestern counties of similar size, Marion County had the highest local incarceration rate in 2013.
  • 44 percent of people who have their charges dismissed spend more than 30 days in jail, while 5 percent of those people spend six or more months in jail.