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The ACLU of Nebraska on Thursday formally launched a first-of-its-kind, six-month pilot project in Lancaster County meant to help bond out low-income people sitting in jail because they can't afford bail.

The Lancaster County Bail Fund is being funded by an anonymous local donor and will operate as a revolving fund that will post bail for individuals held pretrial in the county jail, ACLU communications director Heidi Uhing said.

She said when people who benefit from the bail fund appear for trial, the money is returned to the fund and recycled to help others.

Danielle Conrad, executive director of ACLU of Nebraska, said the organization is following in the footsteps of successful, grass-roots activists who, with support of local donors, are bringing attention to the "persistent and unfair modern-day debtors prison practices plaguing the capital city."

Last year, Black Lives Matter groups raised more than $500,000 to bail out mothers in 20 cities on Mother's Day. Similar bail funds have been established in Brooklyn, Chicago, Nashville and Seattle.

Said Conrad: "Far too many of our neighbors are languishing in county jails presumed innocent yet unable to afford to pay bail causing significant harm to their families, employment and our community at taxpayer expense with little to no benefit to our shared public safety goals."

Lancaster County Attorney Pat Condon, whose deputies make requests about bond amounts to judges, said Thursday he isn't part of the program and doesn't know how the ACLU determines candidates for the money.

"If we can ensure that these people come back to court, that's what we want," he said.

Condon said so far most have been in misdemeanor county and city cases for things like property crimes or disturbing the peace.

But, he said, he is a little concerned some chosen to get the money have a history of failing to appear for court and thinks they may not be motivated to show up because they, or a family member, aren't putting up their own money. Then, a warrant goes out, potentially taking up additional police resources to find them.

"The reason we ask for these bonds is the history of their failures to appear, not because they're poor," Condon said.

On the other side of court cases, Lancaster County Public Defender Joe Nigro said he supports a move to end the money bond system, which he says criminalizes poverty. He'd like to see a move to a system that relies on evidence-based risk assessments.

"Whether or not someone has $500 does not make them more likely to come back to court, or less of a risk in the community. It just means they have $500," he said. "Our current system punishes the poor."

Nigro said one night in jail can mean the loss of a job, housing and custody of children.

Larry Wayne of the Re-entry Alliance of Nebraska said when people are locked up with criminals, they learn more about criminal behavior.

He said some people's crimes are just stupid mistakes, and they need a chance to turn their lives around instead of being dragged into a system that causes them and their families financial hardship. 

"Instead of having people sit out their lives because they can't afford a few hundred dollars for bail, we should be reinvesting in programs to help those who need it and keep them out of criminal behavior," Wayne said.

Taxpayers are needlessly paying up to $100 per day to jail people still presumed innocent, he said. 

"Ideally, judges would not be charging bail of those who cannot afford it. Until then, this bail fund will get people the resources they need so they can get back to their lives and be productive members of society," Wayne said.

Katrina Thomas, a community organizer at ACLU of Nebraska, said everyone who they helped Thursday was grateful.

One man asked whether this could really be happening, she said. Another teared up when Thomas told him he would be released.

"He shook my hand, thanked me several times and told me I had no idea how much this means to him," Thomas said.

He'd been sitting in jail for over a week because he didn't have $150 for bail, she said.

"As a formerly incarcerated individual, I know all too well the havoc and stress that being in jail can cause on a family and in one's life. Being able to bail people out through the bail fund today was such a wonderful experience," Thomas said.

In 2016, the ACLU published Unequal Justice, which reviewed current practices in Douglas, Lancaster, Sarpy and Hall counties, which they said illustrated racial disparities and a modern-day debtors' prison.

Last year, state lawmakers passed debtors prison reform legislation, LB259, which directed courts to consider all methods of bond and conditions of release to avoid pretrial incarceration. But, the ACLU says, the reform measures have not been implemented in daily practice.

Reach the writer at 402-473-7237 or lpilger@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @LJSpilger.

Reporter

Lori Pilger is a public safety reporter.

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