Indiana lawmakers are working to crack down on bail charities after one such nonprofit sprung two defendants from jail who were subsequently charged with grisly murders.
Republican legislators have crafted a bill to regulate bail funds after local press reported that a national nonprofit called The Bail Project bonded out two accused offenders subsequently charged with homicides in Indianapolis. An Indiana state Senate committee on Tuesday heard testimony about the bill from Nikki Sterling, the mother of one of the people allegedly murdered by a Bail Project client.
"In principle, aiding an individual who stole food to feed their family is admirable," Sterling told the committee on Tuesday. "However, The Bail Project is bailing out offenders with violent criminal histories. And sadly, it's the very communities they claim to be advocating for that are now in harm's way by having these dangerous individuals back out on the street."
The Bail Project's Indianapolis clients who prompted the new legislation are Travis Lang and Marcus Garvin. Lang has been charged with the Oct. 1 shooting death of 24-year-old Dylan McGinnis, Sterling's son. The Bail Project and a for-profit bail bondsman helped Lang post a $5,650 bond for a drug charge, despite prior felony prosecutions for burglary and resisting law enforcement.
Garvin is accused of murdering his girlfriend, 30-year-old Christie Lynn Holt. Garvin allegedly stabbed Holt 51 times because he suspected her of cheating on him, then attempted to dismember her body before disposing of it near a creek.
Garvin was out on a $1,500 bond with an ankle monitor at the time of Holt's murder. He was arrested in December 2020 for stabbing a customer at a gas station where he worked the checkout counter. Garvin allegedly followed the customer out of the station's convenience store, stabbed him in the back, and resumed checking out customers until authorities arrived, according to the Indianapolis Star.
Indianapolis is one of many American cities struggling against a surge of violent crime. It’s a crisis of many causes. Some cities have poured huge sums into diversionary programs at the expense of law enforcement, while police grapple with the same staffing shortages plaguing the private sector. And many jurisdictions curtailed pretrial detention in the name of COVID mitigation, a boon for repeat offenders. Indianapolis set a record for murders in 2021, and more than 700 people were wounded in shootouts.
State senator Aaron Freeman (R.), the Indiana bill's author and lead sponsor, told the Washington Free Beacon that ending the crime wave is an economic as well as public safety imperative.
"We pride ourselves on being a welcoming place," Freeman said. "We've got to get our arms around this. If we don't, my fear is it's going to hurt the economic engine of this state."
The bill is one of the first legislative efforts in the nation to regulate bail charities. Donations to such organizations soared during the 2020 Floyd riots, fueled by Democratic politicians keen on helping demonstrators. But community bail funds vary in professionalism and operational capacity. Some have drawn scrutiny from charity watchdogs with their spotty reporting practices and cash-hoarding tendencies.
The Indiana bill would prevent funds from bailing out accused felons or defendants with means, limiting aid to "two thousand dollars or less for an indigent person charged with a misdemeanor." And if bail fund clients miss court appearances, their bond payments will be reassigned to the state's general fund, putting bail charities on the hook when their clients don't comply with their release terms.
That latter provision will force charitable bail funds to tighten up their operations. Many community bail funds are supported by volunteers led by a cadre of paid staff. They don’t have the capacity to track client cases, ensure they obey their release terms, or hunt fugitives like a bail bondsman does. As such, they'll have to develop compliance practices and become more selective at posting bail, or face the consequences. Sterling highlighted that point during her testimony on Tuesday.
"The Bail Project operates without regulation, meaning that they can bail out whomever they want, regardless of the charge," Sterling said. "Furthermore, once out on bond, the offender is not accountable to the charitable bail organization, and the organization does not have any oversight of the offender once released."
Losing bail payments could undermine a bail fund's financial stability over time. Though many bail funds have multiple revenue streams, they usually count on bail payments they post coming back to the organization once a client's case has been resolved. Every bail payment lost can undercut their ability to help a future client.
The bill also forbids local and state governments from funding bail charities. It further requires bail funds to obtain certification from the state insurance commissioner, which must be renewed every two years. The commissioner can decertify an organization if its staff misuses funds or engages in "fraud, dishonesty, or deception."
The Bail Project collected approximately $250,000 in taxpayer dollars via an Indianapolis-funded crime prevention program administered by the Central Indiana Community Foundation.
David Gaspar, The Bail Project's national operations director, defended his organization to the committee on Tuesday and accused others of exploiting the McGinnis and Holt murders to advance an anti-reform agenda.
"The manner in which they have been politicized shows a double standard and a political agenda that must be acknowledged," he said. "What The Bail Project would like to talk to lawmakers about is how to reform the bail system so due process is not tied to how much money a person has."
The Bail Project has assisted nearly 1,000 low-income residents in the Indianapolis area since 2018, according to Gaspar.
Freeman, the bill's sponsor, said on balance the bill simply regulates bail charities in the same manner as for-profit bail bondsmen.
"In Indiana, our Department of Insurance regulates bail bondsmen, and that’s what [bail charities] are doing," he told the Free Beacon. "Everyone should play by the same set of rules."