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Advocates fear a crisis as Louisville Bail Project ends bailout operations

J. Tyler Franklin
Members of local advocacy groups have concerns about the conditions inside the Louisville jail following a series of in-custody deaths dating back to late 2021.

Starting next month, the nonprofit The Bail Project will stop posting bail for people accused of crimes in Louisville.

The group began operating in the River City in 2018 and has since bailed out more than 4,200 people. The Bail Project also helps those clients access services, like mental health support or drug abuse counseling, as well as transportation to and from court dates.

Shameka Parrish-Wright, who previously served as the local chapter’s executive director, said she’s concerned the jail population will increase after The Bail Project ends its cash bail operations this summer. Parrish-Wright said people being detained before they’re convicted of a crime can lead to them losing their jobs and housing.

“The numbers of people who get locked up increase in the summer as there’s more events, more people going out, more people dealing with all kinds of stuff,” she said. “So I’m very concerned about the number of arrests and people put in jail.”

Parrish-Wright said the jail is already overcrowded and fourteen people have died while in the custody of the Louisville Metro Department of Corrections since November 2021.

Parrish-Wright said she doesn’t believe there’s another group in Louisville with the funding and resources to fill the gap. Bail bonds companies are illegal in Kentucky, meaning people who cannot afford to post their own bail have few to no options.

The daily population of people incarcerated at the Louisville jail dropped significantly at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, when judges and prosecutors were using their discretion to limit the number of people being arrested and detained before trial. But the population started rebounding in 2021, and an LPM News reporter observed people sleeping on plastic cots on the floor during a tour late last year.

Following The Bail Project’s announcement, the ACLU of Kentucky called on police officials, prosecutors and judges to use their discretion again to avoid an exponential increase in the jail population.

“With the end of direct bailout operations … it is more vital for [the Louisville Metro Police Department] to use its discretion to issue citations in lieu of arrest, and for prosecutors and judges to commit to increased use of releasing individuals without a bond, or on nonfinancial conditions,” said Kungu Njuguna, the ACLU’s policy strategist, in an emailed statement.

Bailouts not a 'long-term' solution

Leaders of The Bail Project nationally say posting bail for people in Louisville was always meant to be temporary. The local chapter is one of more than 20 the group operates across the U.S.

The organization is also making changes elsewhere. The Bail Project opened a new chapter in Jacksonville in January and ended its operations in northwest Arkansas in April.

Jeremy Cherson, communications director for The Bail Project, said the group views its bailout operations as a “demonstration project” to bolster advocacy around ending the cash bail system, which it will now double down on.

“Fundamentally, The Bail Project is not meant to be a sustained, long-term solution to this problem,” he said. “At a certain point, we have to assess and take stock of where we’re at in terms of impact, evidence gained and data collected, and whether there’s a strategic point to pivot to fully an advocacy approach.”

Cherson said the data from the past five years has helped counter the argument that cash bail is necessary to ensure people don’t skip town.

The Bail Project says 91% of the more than 4,200 people it served in Louisville returned to court. The people the nonprofit bailed out over the last five years were disproportionately Black, making up roughly half of its clients despite being only 23% of Louisville’s population. Two-thirds of clients said they had children and half reported needing access to services, such as transportation, employment assistance, housing or mental health services.

Cherson said the group understands the concerns about the possibility of a rising jail population, but he said “it's absurd” Louisville officials would rely on a nonprofit to address that rather than make meaningful policy changes.

“The people that need to step in is government to get rid of cash bail and transition to a system that we know works, that is more effectively oriented around community-based services,” he said. “There’s so many options that are available to local and state officials to make that possible.”

The Bail Project also released a “transition report” this week that includes a number of recommendations for reforming the pre-trial detention system in Louisville. Among the proposals are increasing the use of summons in lieu of arrests, commonly referred to as “catch and release,” and urging Metro Council to approve an ordinance eliminating cash bail.

Critics of charitable bail funds like The Bail Project have seized on instances where people who were bailed out of jail went on to commit other crimes. The Bail Project was sued last year by the family of a 17-year-old girl who was killed in a drunk driving accident by a man they posted bail for. That lawsuit was ultimately dismissed.

‘Who’s going to pick up the slack?'

The Bail Project will stop taking on new cases starting July 10, although they’ll continue to work with existing clients whose cases are still pending.

During this brief transition period, Cherson said the group will start “actively engaging with different local stakeholders” to try to figure out what changes need to happen to alleviate any negative impacts.

Members of the LMDC Stakeholders Coalition, an advocacy group led by the ACLU of Kentucky, are planning to meet and discuss how to “avert a new crisis” in the city jail.

Parrish-Wright — who now heads the nonprofit VOCAL-KY focused on ending homelessness, mass incarceration and the War on Drugs — is part of the Coalition. She said the various community groups and nonprofits should “see how we can parcel off some of the responsibilities” of The Bail Project.

Parrish-Wright and other members of the Coalition are hoping criminal justice officials in Louisville leverage the end of The Bail Project’s bailout operations into change.

“This is going to be bad if we don’t get it together, but I hope they feel motivated to work on meaningful bail reform that keeps people from having to go to jail because they are poor,” she said.

A spokesperson for LMDC did not answer questions about how they expect the announcement will impact the jail population or what they’re doing to prepare.

The Louisville Community Bail Fund — a separate, smaller organization affiliated with Black Lives Matter Louisville — is expecting to receive more requests for services starting next month. Its leader Chanelle Helm said the group has bailed out about 210 people since 2017, but her focus is much broader than “who’s going to pick up the slack” from The Bail Project.

“Addressing the root causes [of crime and incarceration] is putting viable grocery stores in our neighborhoods, making sure people have access to the income they need to support their families,” she said. “I do not want us to have a conversation where we are needing to pay bail. Just stop arresting people.”

Helm said the Community Bail Fund will continue to take calls from people in Louisville who need help with their cases, including bail.

Roberto Roldan is the City Politics and Government Reporter for WFPL. Email Roberto at rroldan@lpm.org.