SEATTLE — There is a push across the country, including in western Washington, to reform the cash bail system through nonprofit groups that post bail for those who can’t afford it. These groups are drawing criticism from victim advocates and the crime victims they serve.
There are approximately 100 charitable bail organizations in the country, including the Seattle-based Northwest Community Bail Fund (NCBF). Through donations, the NCBF said they can post bail for between 80 and 90 defendants per month awaiting trial at the King, Snohomish, and Pierce county jails.
The concern raised by victims is that the NCBF bails people out of jail regardless of the charges filed against them. This includes people charged with “serious violent” felony offenses, as defined by state law.
“I am all for social justice and for helping underprivileged people, but why would they allow someone to get out who has committed violent acts against other people? And someone who has a long history of it?” said domestic violence survivor Tiffany Wood of Seattle.
Wood's ex-boyfriend has a criminal record that includes domestic violence assault and the violation of several protection orders. The NCBF bailed her ex-boyfriend out of jail in early March after an arrest for possession of a stolen vehicle and charges stemming from another violation of a protection order meant to keep Wood and her children safe.
“To say this has upset me is an understatement,” said Wood. “[My ex-boyfriend] has a long history of not showing up to court. This organization clearly didn’t care about the victims in these cases. Having him in jail was the one thing that made me feel safe from him.”
The NCBF states their work is necessary because the current system fuels racial and economic inequalities.
“The truth is that bail creates two systems of criminal justice in Washington: one for people who can afford bail, and one for people who can’t,” the website states.
“Our work focuses on counteracting the structural issues of a system that is not founded on guilt or innocence, but on affluence and privilege," said NCBF Executive Director Becky Errera.
According to the National Bail Fund Network, the practice of bailing pre-trial defendants out of jail regardless of the alleged crime is common among charitable bail funds throughout the country. The groups make decisions on who they post bail for based on “resources and need,” not the type of charge.
“The assessment of need is one not based on [a] charge,” said National Bail Fund Network Director Pilar Weiss. “[We] prioritize those that may lose their job, their housing, custody of their children, [people who] are the primary caretaker for others, have a health condition that puts them in even more danger [in jail], etc.”
The local nonprofit said in 2021 they posted bail for 278 defendants with cases in the King County Superior Court system, most of which are felony cases. King County public records obtained by KING 5 show that of those defendants, approximately half of the people bailed out were charged with non-violent offenses such as theft of a motor vehicle, unlawful possession of a firearm, identity theft, and failure to register as a sex offender.
But the other half bailed out were in jail and awaiting trial for alleged crimes involving violence, including domestic violence assault, armed robbery, vehicular homicide, arson, and rape of a child in the first degree.
Crime victim advocates said they were surprised to learn the NCBF bails defendants out of jail without a review of their charges and criminal histories.
“People are shocked. They didn’t even know that such a fund existed. I wish victims could have more of a say when these decisions are being made,” said Tiffany Attrill, victim advocate at the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office. "Victims often feel forgotten. They feel unheard, that their opinions, thoughts, feelings don’t matter. This feels like another layer of just having no voice.”
In a 2019 domestic violence case, a Seattle man was charged with assaulting his girlfriend. Police said he was punishing her for leaving their apartment and leaving behind their crying infant.
Weiss of the National Bail Fund Network said highlighting outlier cases where someone allegedly reoffends with a particularly violent crime "may invoke a certain fear-mongering."
“It is always convenient for criminal legal system actors to focus on charges that may sound frightening or extreme,” said Weiss. “But they are charges the [prosecuting attorneys] chose, and they also were still eligible for bail and have a presumption of innocence.”
Of the data KING 5 obtained involving King County Superior Court cases where the NCBF bailed out a defendant in 2021, 16% were charged with a new crime within a year of being bailed out.
Crime victims and advocates said not considering the severity of a charge before posting bail for defendants creates a public safety risk.
“Shame on them. Shame on them,” said Angie Arabie. Arabie’s 31-year-old son Bradley was allegedly murdered on June 17, 2021, in Seattle's City Hall Park by a man bailed out of the King County Jail by the NCBF.
“It’s ripped my soul out of me,” said Arabie, who is from Lake Charles, Louisiana. “I miss my boy.”
In this case, the defendant, 50-year-old Michael Sedejo, was originally charged with assaulting and robbing a 65-year-old man in Seattle’s City Hall Park on April 13, 2021. The King County Prosecuting Attorney's Office asked the court to set bail at $20,000. The prosecutor argued the bail was necessary “based on the likelihood that the defendant may commit a violent offense…The state is concerned about the safety of the community if the defendant is released from custody.”
“The prosecutor’s office told the judge he was a danger. That word should have meant something to somebody, and it didn’t. And I don’t have a baby. I don’t have my son,” Arabie said.
The NCBF said when it bails someone out of jail, it is no different than when someone uses a for-profit bail bonds service. It added that its work is essential to fight systemic racism in the criminal legal system.
“We have a system of 'innocent until proven guilty,' and the fact that we keep millions of people a year pre-trial who have not been convicted is hugely problematic,” said Dr. Jackie Helfgott, director of Seattle University’s Crime and Justice Research Center. She is not affiliated with the NCBF.
Research shows the current bail system perpetuates racism because people of color are more likely to be over-policed and arrested and more likely to sit in jail unable to post bail.
“We have a system that is infused with systemic racism across the whole span of the system,” Helfgott said. “The only people that should be detained pre-trial are people who present a serious public safety risk. Other than that, everyone else should be released, whether they have money or not (because) people are innocent until proven guilty, and the fact that jail is a horrible place. It’s worse than prison.”
Further research shows people who sit in jail without a way to bail themselves out are more likely to plead guilty regardless of whether they committed the crime. According to researchers at the University of Miami, pretrial detainees plead guilty 2.86 times faster than defendants who are out of custody.
“Poor people accused of crimes face a stark choice: stay in jail to fight the case or plead guilty and go home. This creates a system in which innocent people plead guilty because they can’t afford bail,” writes the NCBF on its website.
Studies show allowing defendants to go free as they await trial can improve public safety. When people are in custody, they are cut off from their community support, employment, opportunities for education, and treatment options. Unlike the state prison system, there are few services in jail settings, which can lead to a higher likelihood of reoffending.
Research published in a 2017 edition of the Stanford Law Review advocated for a better pretrial release policy, in part, because “those detained pretrial are more likely to commit future crimes, which suggests that detention may have a criminogenic effect.”
“If you’re cycling in and out of a jail situation, you’re more likely to stay in the criminal justice system. If you put people in jail, there’s no opportunity to succeed in a jail setting, so it just compounds the problems and keeps people in the system,” said Dr. Helfgott of Seattle University. “The more we can keep people out of jail, connected with their support systems, in community treatment programs, the better.”
Arabie, who lost her son last year, said before posting bails, the NCBF should consider what victims have to say, or at least think hard about releasing defendants charged with violent crimes.
“No one, from the judge all the way down, no one considered that [in my son's case], and that’s horrible," she said.