ACLU starts bail fund for low-income Nebraskans in Lancaster County

Low-income Nebraskans who are unable to afford bail will get an assist in Lancaster County.

The ACLU of Nebraska on Thursday announced the creation of the Lancaster County Bail Fund. The six-month pilot program is being funded by an anonymous donor.

It will be a revolving fund that will post bail for individuals being held before trial in the Lancaster County Jail, according to a press release from the ACLU. When people helped by the fund appear for trial, the money will be returned to the fund to help others in Lincoln.

Danielle Conrad, executive director of ACLU of Nebraska, said the program will focus on Lincoln because the donor who provided the funds is from the city and wanted to focus it there.

The program comes after a 2016 report published by the ACLU which concluded that too many people are sitting in jail simply because they are poor.

The report, titled “Unequal Justice,” said Nebraska judges are creating a “modern-day debtors prison” by imposing bail, fines and fees on low-income people who cannot afford to pay.

The report focused on Douglas, Lancaster, Sarpy and Hall Counties.

In 2017, state lawmakers approved a legislative package to give judges options other than ordering nonviolent offenders to jail to sit out bail, fines or fees. Instead, judges could sentence certain low-income defendants to pay fines in installments or undertake community service.

Another part of the package included requiring judges to consider a defendant’s ability to pay when setting pretrial bail. It also said judges shouldn’t sentence people to jail for failing to pay a debt unless first finding them in willful contempt.

Conrad said the ACLU has monitored the implementation of the legislation but found it has not been used in daily practice.

Change can take time, and lawyers and judges are frequently overwhelmed and lack resources. But the group hopes the bail fund sparks a broader discussion about best practices.

Jailing people who lack the ability to pay doesn’t advance public safety and increases the burden on county jails, Conrad said.

She said the fund in Lancaster County is modeled after well-established programs . The goal is to help as many people as possible, she said.

Lancaster County Public Defender Joe Nigro said the money bond system criminalizes poverty and that a system that relies on evidence-based risk assessments should replace it.

“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. “One night in jail can mean the loss of a job, housing and custody of children. Our current system punishes the poor.”

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