When Aquia Chambers thinks back to her life four years ago, she avoids the details of what got her in trouble. She doesn’t want her mistakes to define her.
She’d rather focus on the present — her recent graduation from Ohio Technical College and her full-time job as a mechanic at Audi, a job “with a 401(k),” she says, her dimples showing under her baseball cap as she smiles.
But her life could have turned out much differently.
In January 2019, Chambers was charged with burglary and petty theft. She sat in Cuyahoga County Jail for two months, unable to afford bail.
She was facing up to eight years in jail, she said.
Kareem Henton, a bail disruptor with The Bail Project – Cleveland, the local chapter of a national nonprofit that helps people charged with crimes avoid pretrial detention, helped Chambers after learning about her case. The project, with fundraising help from other local organizations, posted her $500 bail.
The Bail Project uses donated funds. The money is returned to the fund once a person attends all of their court dates. Chambers is one of almost 1,000 people who have been bailed out since the local chapter started in 2019.
Three months after getting out of jail, she was sentenced to two years of probation, which she completed in June 2021.
And like Chambers, most of those bailed out by The Bail Project don’t go back. In Cleveland, 80% have not had to serve an additional day in jail, David Gaspar, CEO of The Bail Project, said in a forum at The City Club of Cleveland on Wednesday.
At the forum, Gaspar and Robin Steinberg, founder of The Bail Project, shared what they learned after gathering and reviewing five years of data, and their hope that this information will lead to bail reform across the country.
In Cuyahoga County, it takes The Bail Project, on average, eight days to bail someone out.
That’s less than the national average. If you go to jail in Cuyahoga County, expect to sit there about four months before going to trial, Gaspar said.
Reducing the time people spend in jail awaiting trial cuts down the county’s costs of housing defendants. Gaspar said The Bail Project – Cleveland has saved taxpayers $7.5 million.
“The savings, the hardship, and the cost and the impact on human lives is staggering,” Gaspar said.
Chambers, 25, said just being able to appear in court from outside jail made her feel like she had a chance to be seen as “more than a criminal in an orange jumpsuit.”
“I’m not being looked at as an inmate,” she said. “I’m being looked at as a person who has their life together.”
Steinberg founded The Bail Project in 2017, after starting a revolving bail fund in the South Bronx in 2005.
There she learned that people almost always show up to court after being released pretrial, even without the financial incentive of a bail refund. The same has been true nationally in the five years The Bail Project has collected data, Steinberg said.
The bail system was created to ensure people appear for trial and pretrial hearings. “It is not supposed to be used as punishment,” according to the American Bar Association.
Last year Ohioans passed a ballot measure that amended the state constitution to require judges to consider public safety, a person’s criminal record and their likelihood of returning to court when setting bail amounts.
Issue 1 had bipartisan support, but some Democrats and The Bail Project opposed the measure.
“The basic problem with Issue 1 is that it just further codifies the existence of cash bail,” Steinberg said. “It doesn’t do anything to get at the heart of what the problem is here.”
The Bail Project would like to eliminate bail here and nationwide.
Local chapters of The Bail Project — there are 30 nationwide — are made up of bail disruptors who are from the community and were already active in social and criminal justice issues.
The nonprofit doesn’t just pay for a person’s bail, but also continues to support the person with court reminders and resources to ensure they don’t end up back in custody.
“What most people value most about our community-release-with-support model is that they have somebody who’s standing by their side that believes in them as much as they believe in themselves,” Gaspar said. “Belief goes a long way.”
After Chambers was released, Henton got her food and helped her get a new phone. He reached out to Alana Garrett-Ferguson, a community organizer with New Voices for Reproductive Justice at the time who now serves on a police oversight board, to help buy Chambers clothes.
Henton helped her get a lawyer through his network as an organizer with Black Lives Matter Cleveland.
That was a much different experience than the two months she spent in jail. Chambers said she rarely met with her court-appointed attorney, and when she did, the meetings lasted only about five minutes. Court hearings were postponed without explanation; she received little information about her case.
The Bail Project, in partnership with Lyft, also provided Chambers with rides to and from court.
While she dealt with her court case, Henton helped Chambers enroll in college and apply for financial aid. She was able to get rental assistance through Henton’s Black Lives Matter networks.
The support from Henton, counselors and her boyfriend helped her get through her court case and come out a college graduate with a reliable job, she said.
“That’s all she needed was just a little bit of support … and here we are,” Henton said. “I’m as proud of her as I am of my twins.”
Chambers said she’s been able to learn from her mistakes and appreciate how far she’s come. She hopes people see her as “a person that never gives up,” she said.
“I won’t let my past define me, those charges define me,” Chambers said.
To learn more about The Bail Project – Cleveland visit their website.
This article has been updated to reflect new information and clarification.