Metro Department of Corrections | Photo by Boris Ladwig

American taxpayers spend more than $14 billion annually incarcerating people who haven’t been convicted of any crime, according to The Bail Project, a nonprofit dedicated to decreasing the length of pre-trial detention for low-income individuals.

The Bail Project, which expanded to Louisville in May, works with public defenders, jailers and the community to identify people in need of financial assistance to get out of jail. The organization pays the individual’s bail, so they can continue to work and care for their family while their case works its way through the legal system. Once the bail money is released by the courts, the funds are returned to the organization to be used to get another person out of jail.

The Bail Project currently has offices in the Bronx and Queens in New York, St. Louis, Tulsa, Detroit, Compton and Louisville.

Shelton McElroy, The Bail Project’s national deputy director of operations, said in the Bronx, where the organization started 10 years ago, 96 percent of people the organization bailed out have returned to court when they were supposed to. Only 2 percent of those people did jail time after their case was closed, and 50 percent of the cases ended with the dismissal of all charges.

Since coming to Louisville, The Bail Project has helped release 381 people, and more than 90 percent of them have made all their court dates, said McElroy, who previously worked in the Louisville Metro Office of Safe and Healthy Neighborhoods. Of those cases, he said, 75 have been closed, returning $184,000 to The Bail Project’s revolving fund of about $500,000.

The Bail Project will spend up to $5,000 on bail for one individual, McElroy said. Its goal for Louisville is to bail out 100 people a month. The majority of the people the nonprofit helps are charged with misdemeanors.

The fact that people are returning to court in such high numbers, he said, shows that they have respect for the judicial system and are not flight risks.

Over the last 15 years, increases in pretrial detention accounted for 99 percent of all jail growth, he said, and in many cases, low-income people are detained simply because they can’t pay a few hundred dollars in bail. In some case, he added, poor people will plead guilty to a crime just so they can to return to work or see their families.

“Justice has become a money issue in this country. You can be poor and innocent and have a worse outcome than someone who is wealthy and guilty,” McElroy said. “You are not protecting the public safety when two people can both have $2,000 bail, but one of them gets to go home because he has disposable income and the other stays in jail. How does having $2,000 in your pocket make it safer for you to be in public?”

Insider reached out to Commonwealth Attorney Tom Wine for comment, but he did not respond before press time.

McElroy said The Bail Project has gotten pushback from prosecutors in other jurisdictions who claimed the group was endangering public safety, but Wine’s office has been cooperative with them.

“I think initially, they looked at us quizzically, just asking, ‘What are they trying to do? Are they a threat to public safety?’ But there have not been any issues between us,” McElroy explained.

Metro Corrections Director Mark Bolton helped to bring The Bail Project to Louisville because he said the city is incarcerated too many people for low-level infractions.

Mark Bolton, director of Metro Corrections, said Wine was a big supporter of The Bail Project when he was a district judge, and he expects that support will continue in his current job.

Bolton played a pivotal role in The Bail Project coming to Louisville. After seeing a presentation about the project, he and Daniel Goyette, executive director of Louisville Metro Public Defender’s Office, petitioned the nonprofit to make Louisville one of its test cities.

Bolton said reforming the cash bail system in Louisville will not only relieve some of the city’s jail overcrowding issues by eliminating some unnecessary incarcerations, but it will help improve the community because he has seen people lose jobs, homes or even custody of their children after being incarcerated for a few days for low-level infractions like not appearing in court for a traffic ticket.

“If you are living paycheck to paycheck, $100 can be a lot of money. I think it is better for the community to have these people connected rather than in custody. If they are on the outside they can go to work, they can see their kids and still resolve their legal issues,” Bolton added.

Public Defender Amy Hannah said her office works with The Bail Project because “our attorneys regularly represent people who are in jail solely because they cannot afford to post a monetary amount to buy their freedom.  Our jail is full of people that have not been convicted of any crime, and while we claim that they enjoy the presumption of innocence, our attorneys know that is not always the case.”

Shameka Parrish-Wright, who manages The Bail Project’s Louisville office, said the organization gets about 90 percent of its referral from the public defender’s office, and the rest come from families who contact her directly or visit the organization’s website.

Shameka Parrish-Wright operates the Louisville office of the Bail Project which has helped more than 300 low-income people get out of jail since May. | Courtesy of Shameka Parrish-Wright

In addition to her work at The Bail Project, Parrish-Wright also works for Special Projects, an independent network of artists and justice reform advocates who offer activities for children every Sunday evening in the basement of the Hall of Justice at Sixth and Liberty streets.

Many of the jail visitors approach her about helping their loved ones get out of jail, Parrish-Wright said. Once she identify a person that The Bail Project might help, either she or Bail Advocate Holly Zoller completes a needs assessment.

The assessment has nothing to do with innocence or guilt, Parrish-Wright said, because The Bail Project works from the presumption of innocence. It simply lets the organization identify any barriers the person might have to returning to court – such as transportation, homelessness, or the need for mental health counseling, she noted.

The Bail Project works with local partners to address their client’s needs, she said. It also reminds them about their court dates through calls and text reminders.

“There is no quid pro quo, they don’t owe us anything. They never pay us back a dime. We simply express to them the responsibility they have to return to court. When they close their case, their bail money is recycled to us, and we use it to get somebody else out,” Parrish-Wright said.

Because Kentucky has a unique bail system that allows people to post bail from anywhere in the state, McElroy said he is in the process of hiring another bail advocate who will work with people in other parts of the state who need bail funds.

This post has been updated to correct the surname of Holly Zoller.