PORTLAND, Ore. — The arrest of a man accused of killing his former partner has put a spotlight on the Portland Freedom Fund, the nonprofit group that bailed him out of jail one week earlier. Mohamad Osman Adan was behind held on charges stemming from repeated incidents of violence and threats towards Rachael Abraham, the mother of his children.
This isn’t the first time the Portland Freedom Fund has found itself in hot water over concerns about bailing out defendants who are charged with violent crimes or considered at risk of committing further violence if released.
Last year, a defendant named Malik Muhamad was extradited from Indiana to Portland on charges of violence during the 2020 Portland protests, including throwing a Molotov cocktail at police. His bail was set at more than $2 million, but the Portland Freedom Fund posted $212,000 to get him out of jail. Federal law enforcement agents arrested him again a few days later on additional charges.
A separate bail fund group called the Northwest Community Bail Fund has been criticized for multiple similar incidents in Washington, including one last year when it bailed out defendant Michael Sendejo after he had been arrested for allegedly assaulting a man in a park in Seattle. Two months later, Sendejo was charged with murdering a man in that same park, KING5 reported.
In a statement posted to Facebook on Tuesday, the Portland Freedom Fund said that in Adan’s case, "the court had deemed him eligible for bail release" and he had been referred with a letter of community support, and that the group had been in contact with him and "did not receive any indications for concern."
Abraham’s ex-husband, Mario Abraham, started a GoFundMe campaign this week to help with expenses for her burial.
Bail is an amount of money that a defendant must pay in order to be released from jail while awaiting a trial, with the money serving as collateral to ensure the defendant shows up at trial.
A defendant’s bail is set during an initial court appearance and the amount generally depends on the severity of the alleged crime, although the exact procedure varies from state to state. In Oregon, defendants only need to post 10% of the bail — the remainder becomes due if they skip out on their trial or break the terms of their release.
Community bail funds aren’t a new concept, but the idea has seen widespread adoption in the age of online crowdfunding, with many new organizations springing up in the past decade. One of the biggest examples is The Bail Project, which was founded in 2018 and operates nationally (it is not affiliated with the Portland Freedom Fund).
The Bail Project's core criticism of the bail system, as outlined on its FAQ page, is that judges too often set bail amounts that many defendants cannot afford to pay, resulting in defendants getting stuck in jail due to their financial situation rather than their risk of endangering the community – and a disproportionate number of those low-income defendants tend to be people of color.
The resulting system has become "a mechanism for incarcerating low-income people," the group argues, and "a two-tier system where two individuals charged with exactly the same thing are treated differently based on their race and economic status."
Being stuck in jail also puts added pressure on those often low-income and minority defendants to accept plea deals, founder Robin Steinberg and two other Bail Project leaders argue in a 2018 article published in the UCLA Criminal Justice Law Review:
In this precarious situation, poor people under arrest often fall prey to the whispers of prosecutors who promise them an enticing deal — plead guilty now and you can return home. But this comes at an enormous cost — a permanent criminal record that will have negative rippling effects on all aspects of an individual’s’ life, including his or her employment, housing, voting rights, immigration status, child custody, physical and mental health.
The organization relies on a mix of donations and a "revolving bail fund" model in which a central fund pays bail for defendants and is then replenished when those defendants get their bail returned at the end of their court cases. In its most recent annual report in June 2021, the group claimed to have posted bail for 17,500 people over its first four years in operation.
Local bail reform
The IRS granted the Portland Freedom Fund nonprofit status in October 2021, although the group appears to have been operating longer than that – in its Tuesday Facebook post, it claimed to have provided assistance to hundreds of people over the past four years, mainly in the Portland metro area.
The group is local and independent, but describes itself in terms similar to those of The Bail Project, writing on its website that it is "a fund that pays bail for our Black, Brown and Indigenous neighbors in the Portland Metro area." In the Facebook note, the organization stated that it "seeks to limit the number of persons held pretrial solely for inability to pay the bail."
The organization is emerging in the spotlight at a time when bail reform is already a hot topic in Oregon. A 2019 OPB story detailed how Portland-area public defense attorneys were embarking on a coordinated effort to advocate for changes to the system.
Oregon Senate Bill 48, which passed last year and took effect in July, moves the state away from a cash bail system and toward one that focuses more on the danger a defendant poses to the community. It doesn’t eliminate cash bail altogether, but it replaces a previous schedule of mandatory minimum bail amounts for specific crimes with a new individualized assessment.
The new system almost immediately attracted controversy when Dylan Kesterson, arrested for assaulting a family of Japanese descent on Portland’s Eastbank Esplanade, was released shortly after being booked in jail on July 2.
Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler was among those who criticized that decision, arguing that a violent bias crime suspect should not have been released before a court hearing.
Who bears responsibility for pre-trial release?
In some cases, prosecutors appear to view bail as a direct means of keeping dangerous defendants in jail, rather than simply a way to make sure they come back for a trial. In the Sendejo case, for example, KING5 reported that prosecutors specifically asked for a high bail because they were concerned that he would be a danger to the community.
Multnomah County District Attorney Mike Schmidt released a statement this week criticizing the Portland Freedom Fund’s decision to post bail for Adan, arguing that "when a judge imposes bail, the defendant’s ability to pay is among the factors they consider. The action taken by the Portland Freedom Fund circumvented this, with tragic results."
Schmidt has previously voiced support for bail reform, telling KGW in a statement in March that "It doesn't matter to victims of crime if a defendant has $500 or not" and that his office "continues to advocate to reduce reliance on cash bail and instead focus on detaining those individuals who pose the most significant threat of future criminality, regardless of their financial means."
KING5 also reported that the Northwest Community Bail Fund argued that it shouldn’t be singled out for intervening in the bail system, because bail fund nonprofits aren’t the only groups out there that regularly intercede on behalf of low-income defendants.
There are also for-profit bail bond companies that post bail in the same way, but they charge defendants non-refundable fees for the assistance – a practice that has drawn criticism from groups like the American Civil Liberties Union and is illegal in Oregon, Illinois, Kentucky, Wisconsin and most countries outside of the United States, according to The New York Times.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the context of a statement from District Attorney Mike Schmidt in March. He was commenting on bail reform in general and was not speaking about Oregon Senate Bill 48.