Group freeing people through community bond program

By Anita Miller

There’s a new avenue for pre-trial detainees – who make up the majority of those incarcerated in Hays County Jail – to be released from custody and returned to their families, without experiencing any financial impact.

The community bond program was launched in the spring by the activist organization Mano Amiga, and as of last week had accomplished 16 releases and was expecting another 3 to 5 within the next seven days.

Funded by National Bail Project and the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Foundation, the project pays the full cash bond for eligible inmates and when that individual shows up for court “the money comes back to us,” explained Eric Martinez, Mano Amiga’s policy director. The group’s total funding is $75,000 – $50,000 from the National Bail Project and $25,000 from the RFK Foundation.

Jordan Buckley, one of the group’s founders, said the program is intended to chip away at a system that punishes people for poverty, and now also puts them in a situation where they could be exposed to the deadly coronavirus.

The cash bond process now in use translates to a “wealth-based” system, Buckley said. “People charged with the same crime, if they can afford bail, can go home and elude the virus. If you can’t pay, you are left in a facility swamped with COVID-19.”

The program has been in the works for almost a year and would have been the first in the state, Buckley said, if not for the coronavirus. “After the pandemic hit, there were lots of communities trying to do the same thing.”

Basically, the program is open to people incarcerated as pre-trail detainees (meaning they have not pled guilty or been sentenced), have been assessed a bond of $5,000 or less, have a reliable contact (the more contacts, the stronger the case) and have an attorney willing to work with the program.

Once eligibility is established, Mano Amiga works with the attorney (who must sign papers assuring the bail money will be returned to the organization). In addition to securing their release, Mano Amiga, through partnerships with other advocacy programs, can also, if necessary, arrange for a night in a motel.

The first person released under the program walked out of jail April 2 after spending several days there on a charge of unauthorized use of a motor vehicle.

“He was arrested because he was experiencing homelessness and came across an abandoned vehicle and crawled inside to rest for the night – which counters the narrative from the jail that the only people in jail are convicted or accused of a violent crime.”

Prosecutors eventually declined to prosecute that case, Buckley said.

Charges are still active, however, about the latest person released through the program.

Joshua Williams was arrested on a charge of criminal trespass that was filed, he says, by his girlfriend’s uncle.

An amputee and cancer survivor, Williams spent six days in jail and was told about the community bail program by his attorney. “Mano Amiga came in and talked with my lawyer and my mother. They basically won my mom’s trust and she allowed them to come and get me out. I’m really thankful that I had that. They gave me brand new N95 mask, a $25 H-E-B gift card, new socks and deodorant and toiletries and schooled me on what was going on,” the 38-year-old Williams said. “I believe in the work Mano Amiga does.”

When the county established a Magistration Division last year, there was hope that more pre-trial detainees would be released back to their families and jobs and in a timely fashion, but Buckley and Joe Fonseca, also of Mano Amiga, said reality has fallen short of expectations.

The designated district judge, Joe Moore, “has not been magistrating enough,” Martinez said. “We’ve had people that turned themselves in at 9 a.m. and had not been magistrated until 3 p.m. the next day,” a delay he called unacceptable especially given the fact the coronavirus is spreading among the jail’s population. “(District Judge) Gary Steele was dubbed the ‘lazy judge’ by the Houston Chronicle. Moore is the ‘lazy magistrate,’” Martinez said.

Although many inmates were released in the spring after district judges met to discuss the coronavirus, some accused of specific offenses were not eligible per an order from Gov. Greg Abbott. Martinez pointed out that Bexar County got around that by having judges issue affordable, “nominal bonds” of $10 or so.

Buckley also noted that addiction, mental health and homelessness contribute to the jail’s population and each needs to be addressed.

“It’s clear the origins of why crimes are committed are tied to these underlying issues. Locking people in a cage will not solve anything.”

Though word of the program was initially spread primarily through word of mouth, now more attorneys are mentioning the possibility to their clients, which is bringing more interest.

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