Even before a lawsuit took Dallas County to task for a cash bail system that unjustly keeps poor people behind bars, some officials had already recognized the need for change. But until there is meaningful bail reform, hundreds of people, convicted of no crime but unable to pay bail, will continue to languish in Lew Sterrett.
That’s where the Community Bail Fund of North Texas steps in. The new organization, taking cues from similar groups around the country, will help some poor defendants get out of jail—essentially by paying their bail before they can lose their job, before their kids are left at school, before their entire life is upturned over an unpaid parking ticket, or a drug possession charge.
The group behind the fund is still small and growing. At a board meeting last week, members discussed the work that needs to be done to be certified as a nonprofit, an important technicality for the fund to really fulfill its mission, and accept tax-exempt donations. But an online fundraiser for the group has already drummed up close to $6,000.
Meanwhile, members are working with other groups that support criminal justice reform, like Faith in Texas, and with the public defenders’ office, collaborative efforts that should prove particularly important as the fund eventually will have to determine which defendants receive help. For that, it’s likely they’ll ultimately rely on the kind of risk assessment surveys that have been proposed as part of bail reform, and most of the fund’s grants themselves will probably be distributed via the public defenders assigned to indigent clients.
The group’s chairperson, Manuel Valles Tellez, works in marketing, but wanted to get involved in criminal justice reform, moved by the well-documented economic and racial disparities reinforced by mass incarceration and cash bail. He found a like-minded ally in SMU student Greg Guggenmos, who around the same time last November was looking into starting a community bail fund in Dallas.
Meeting at SMU last week, Tellez and Guggenmos were joined by a minister, a criminal justice consultant, an attorney in the public defender’s office, and a former Dallas City Council member. None of them seemed to think that the community fund is the solution to a broken bail system. Charity isn’t a replacement for justice. But with who knows how many court battles, elections, and political maneuvers standing in between today and the day where Dallas County embraces bail reform, why wait to take action? There are people in jail right now who shouldn’t be there.
“We’re trying to give people hope,” Tellez says.