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Flush with donations, Massachusetts Bail Fund pays to free defendants across the state — many facing serious charges

Fund wants to "free them all," but law enforcement officials fear for public safety

Massachusetts Bail Fund posts bail for several in Worcester
The Massachusetts Bail Fund posted bail for five men at the Worcester County House of Correction. (Shelby Lum|Globe Staff)

WEST BOYLSTON — If only he’d had $1,100, Joel Rodriguez could have been a free man. Instead, the 31-year-old sat in the Worcester County House of Correction awaiting trial on assault and harassment charges — working out, reading the Bible, trying to tame the rage that got him locked up in the first place.

So when the man from the Massachusetts Bail Fund showed up at the jail on the evening of July 6 to post bail for Rodriguez and four other prisoners, it felt like divine intervention.

“Hallelujah!” he shouted before he fished his belongings from the plastic storage container where jailers had kept them. “They saved my life, basically.”

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Scenes like that are playing out across the country as private charities including the Bail Fund ride a tidal wave of donations since the killing of George Floyd set off massive demonstrations against racial injustice in law enforcement. Within two weeks of Floyd’s death as a Minneapolis police officer kneeled on his neck, Minnesota’s largest bail fund had received more than $31 million in donations so that protesters who were arrested could be bailed out, according to news reports.

The Massachusetts Bail Fund has not released its fund-raising totals, but leaders of the charity say on their website that the “incredible generosity” of donors has allowed them to increase the amount of bail they can pay. As recently as January, the group, which has just one paid employee, paid no more than $500, but last week it posted $85,000 bail to free a single prisoner.

Colby Bruno, senior legal counsel for the Victim Rights Law Center, believes dangerous criminals should be held as long as possible.
Colby Bruno, senior legal counsel for the Victim Rights Law Center, believes dangerous criminals should be held as long as possible.Essdras M Suarez for The Boston Globe

The Massachusetts Bail Fund opposes cash bail on principle, arguing that it discriminates against the poor by keeping them locked up until their day in court and interfering with their ability to work or prepare for that trial. The only purpose of bail, they point out, should be to make sure defendants show up for trial — and the people they bail out overwhelmingly do.

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But its sudden prosperity has led the Bail Fund into controversial territory as many of the prisoners they have bailed out face increasingly serious, often violent, charges, and some have long criminal records.

Donors who rushed to support bail funds after the Floyd death likely thought they were helping to bail out jailed protesters, who typically face bail of up to a few hundred dollars. The fund bailed out scores of protesters arrested during the Boston demonstrations, but it has set free many facing more serious charges as well. Rodriguez, for example, had been in jail for nine months before his release, serving time for assaulting and harassing several victims, according to court records. Now he’s out on bail for additional domestic violence charges, which he described to the Globe as “problems of love.”

The day after the fund bailed out Rodriguez, it put up $85,000 to free Karmau Cotton-Landers, 25, who is accused of shooting someone in the daytime on Boston Common in early April. When he was arrested, officers found a loaded firearm and ammunition in his Puma camouflage backpack, Boston police said.

On the day after Cotton-Landers was freed, the fund bailed out someone who had been arrested on looting charges hours after the May 31 demonstration in Boston. Darren McFadden also has an extensive criminal history including 60 cases in Suffolk County and a three-year prison sentence for robbing someone at knifepoint. The Bail Fund paid McFadden’s $2,500 bail on larceny and breaking and entering charges.

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That all happened in three days. Other defendants recently freed by the Bail Fund include Walker Browning, accused of robbing five women, two at knifepoint; David Privette, facing charges of holding up a gas station at gunpoint; and Otis Walker, who had been held since late 2018 on three counts of child rape. These three were being held on bails ranging from $5,000 to $50,000.

Atara Rich-Shea, the fund’s unpaid executive director, declined to comment on the group’s increasing activities, saying she objected to the Globe’s attempt to interview people the fund had bailed. The Globe visited the Worcester jail after learning the Bail Fund would be freeing five prisoners that afternoon and asked to speak to the men as they left. Rich-Shea said the arrangement “ambushed the people whose bail we were posting,” although Rodriguez was enthusiastic about talking to a reporter.

The Bail Fund’s website makes it clear it will help any defendant post bail, no matter the severity of the charges or their criminal record:

“THE MASSACHUSETTS BAIL FUND IS A CHARGE NEUTRAL BAIL FUND; WE POST BAIL REGARDLESS OF COURT HISTORY, CHARGE, OR CIRCUMSTANCES. Our only limitation is access to funds and staffing.”

For the fund and its supporters, a principle is at stake. If a prosecutor believes a defendant is too dangerous to release, they argue, the prosecutor should ask a judge to declare him or her dangerous and held indefinitely. Setting a high bail, they argue, is both unfair to the poor and ineffective at preventing crime.

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“Why would paying a certain amount of bail make them any less dangerous?” asked David Rangaviz, a lawyer for the Committee for Public Counsel Services, an organization that represents poor defendants.

But victims rights advocates and some in law enforcement say the fund is enabling the release of potentially dangerous people with few or no court-ordered conditions to protect the public.

“It is a total injustice,” said Boston Police Commissioner William Gross, referring to the release of defendants charged with crimes of violence. “I’ll get criticized, but not by the folks in the neighborhoods. They are the victims of crime and they feel left out.”

Freeing them, he said, sends the message to those inclined to commit crimes that there are no consequences.

“We have seen an uptick in violence,” Gross said. “I have no doubt that some of the violence is attributable to” people out on bail.

“I would never deny anyone the opportunity to be bailed. But ... what about the victims? We keep forgetting about the victims. They have constitutional rights too — to walk down the street, to be secure in their homes.”

* * *

Every defendant is innocent until proven guilty. It’s a cornerstone of the American justice system. So bail, which defendants pay in exchange for freedom while awaiting trial, is not supposed to be punishment. It’s meant as a deposit to ensure that the defendant will return for trial instead of fleeing. If they show up, they get their money back.

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In reality, cash bail — an amount that a defendant can pay to leave jail while awaiting trial — is weighted heavily against people who are least able to pay, sometimes forcing them to remain behind bars for weeks or even months before trial. And people who remain in jail while awaiting trial are more likely to be convicted than if they’d been free, according to a 2018 study in American Economic Review. That’s a big part of the reason that states including California and New Jersey have sharply reduced the use of cash bail.

Even some prosecutors agree that the bail system is unfair, especially the deliberate use of high bail to keep defendants behind bars. If prosecutors believe someone is too dangerous to be released, they can ask the judge to hold him or her indefinitely without bail, something Bristol District Attorney Tom Quinn said he routinely does. At a dangerousness hearing, the prosecutor must convince the judge that the defendant poses too great a risk to be released.

“The cash bail system is an arbitrary approach that negatively impacts the poor and disadvantaged,” he said. “The fairer approach is to hold someone without bail, if appropriate, or release them on conditions.”

However, current law makes some prosecutors reluctant to ask for a dangerousness hearing since it imposes a strict timetable for a speedy trial that can be difficult to meet. Quinn has been lobbying to change the law so that jails can hold prisoners for up to one year of pretrial detention. But, for now, it’s much easier for district attorneys to seek high bail on people they consider high risk and avoid the timetable.

Groups such as the Massachusetts Bail Fund, with its “Free Them All” slogan, have waged a low-key battle against the bail system for years, freeing jailed defendants in counties across the state. Rich-Shea told the state Senate last year that the fund has posted about $1 million in bail for more than 4,000 people since 2013. Most were held on low bail.

The death of Floyd on May 25 suddenly linked bail funds to one of the largest protest movements in modern US history. On social media, the Massachusetts Bail Fund encouraged potential donors to think of their group as a way to fight racism in law enforcement.

“Anytime we post a bail, protest or otherwise, we are pushing back against a system of racialized social control and violence,” tweeted the Massachusetts Bail Fund on June 8. “The $$ we & the bailfundnetwork community has received these past three weeks shows how many of you support this pushback.”

The fund has bailed many people arrested during protests, including most, if not all, of the 53 arrested in the unrest after the May 31 demonstration in Boston.

The fund paid the $5,000 bail for Chana Harris, 35, who was arrested hours after the protest for being in a car from which 10 shots were allegedly fired at Boston officers. A gun was found at her feet and she was charged with carrying a firearm without a license.

The Bail Fund also freed many people jailed for reasons that had nothing to do with the demonstrations.

Rodriguez had nine pending criminal cases out of East Brookfield District Court when he was locked up in November. All involved domestic abuse, and multiple accusers, according to court records. He pleaded guilty in May and was sentenced to nine months. With good behavior, he was eligible for release on July 4. However, he had two other outstanding cases, out of Worcester District Court, involving similar charges. Bail on those cases was $1,100.

Had the Bail Fund not covered the $1,100 bail on July 6, he would likely have remained in jail until the cases went to trial — scheduled for September.

Rangaviz, the lawyer for the Committee for Public Counsel Services, said incarceration is generally not helpful to anyone — often costing them their jobs and disrupting relationships.

“It actually increases the likelihood that the detained person will commit a crime in the future,” he said.

But Colby Bruno, senior legal counsel for the Victim Rights Law Center, believes dangerous criminals should be held as long as possible.

“It’s entirely different to bail someone involved in protests versus someone who lost their rights because they are being charged with really serious crimes,” she said. ”These are not good citizens and this is a get-out-of-jail-free card that does not factor in the safety of the victims.”

But there’s at least one recently freed prisoner who said he plans to make the most of the second chance the Bail Fund gave him.

“I’m not doing anything illegal,” said Rodriguez as he left the Worcester County House of Correction. “This is hell, or purgatory ... I made good use of my time and I’m pretty sure I’m not coming back.”


Andrea Estes can be reached at andrea.estes@globe.com.