By Grace Toohey and Lea Skene
Rogers Johnson Jr. spent six days behind bars for misdemeanor public intoxication because he couldn’t afford to post bail.
He was released from East Baton Rouge Parish Prison on Saturday afternoon — just in time to spend Father’s Day with his three children.
“I just want to hug them and squeeze them tight,” he said with a grin, standing outside the jail entrance after his release. “It’s time for me to do everything I can for my children.”
Johnson, 35, is one of four Baton Rouge fathers getting help this weekend from a national nonprofit called the Bail Project, the first nationwide effort to help poor people languishing behind bars waiting for their cases to be resolved because they can’t afford to pay even small bail amounts.
The group, which is based in Los Angeles and has several other offices across the country, recently established a presence in Baton Rouge — its first location in the Deep South. Its mission is to prevent the poor from suffering disproportionate consequences from their involvement in the criminal justice system.
“We want to address the immediate need of somebody who’s been arrested, but we also want to advance the conversation around cash bail and pretrial systems in general,” said Ashley White, who was hired to lead the organization’s work in Baton Rouge. “We always have our eye on the prize to work ourselves out of existence. This is just a Band-Aid on a huge problem.”
The argument against cash bail is not new. Advocates have long criticized the practice for its potential to derail people’s lives over minor arrests, causing them to lose their jobs and houses, become disconnected from their families or even lose custody of their children.
Johnson’s bail was set at just $250, which wouldn’t mean much to a wealthier person but was more than he could afford.
“This is so much of a blessing — a new start,” he said after being released. “Ain’t this a beautiful day.”
The Bail Project and several other local organizations hosted a special Father’s Day fundraiser to help support Johnson and the three other dads. But for the remainder of the year, the program is using what’s called its revolving bail fund to free detainees from the East Baton Rouge Parish Prison ahead of their trials.
If the process works as intended, almost all of the funds will return to the nonprofit at the closure of clients’ cases — as long as people show up for their court dates until a resolution is reached: either through a conviction or dropped charges. At that point, the funds become available to free another client.
White said the group focuses on helping people who can’t afford even low bail amounts — typically under $5,000 — which often correspond with minor crimes such as theft, drug possession and vagrancy. But the program doesn’t reject people based on the charges they’re facing, whether felonies or misdemeanors.
The selection process involves reviewing all arrests and identifying potential clients, then conducting interviews. White said she tries to make sure people have family or community support and access to services upon their release because people who can’t afford low bail amounts often are facing underlying challenges like addiction, mental health issues or homelessness.
Once their next court date is set, she also helps provide transportation and calendar reminders to give people an extra push.
“People have been really proactive with me,” she said, noting one client has called every day since his release to make sure he doesn’t miss a court date. “They’re grateful. They want to show up and do the right thing.”
White has freed more than 20 clients since her start with the Bail Project in late April. The group plans to bring in a second advocate to join her in Baton Rouge soon.
White said the organization hopes to demonstrate that cash bail is not the most effective way to ensure people show up to court — part of its larger mission to show the need for reform. She said overall more than 90 percent of the Bail Project’s clients never miss a court date, thanks in part to supports the program provides like transportation and scheduling reminders.
“In addition to showing that money is not a necessary incentive, the other thing we saw was an incredible impact on case disposition,” said Camilo Ramirez, the group’s communications director. “The threat of incarceration coerces people into accepting bad plea deals.”
He said people who were able to post bail — then continue working, paying bills and caring for their families — were much more likely to see their cases dismissed or switched over to reduced charges.
As the Bail Project moves across the country in an aggressive campaign to revamp the nation’s criminal justice system, Baton Rouge has become its first city in the Deep South. The group has recently found success in New York City, St. Louis and Spokane, Washington, slowly building the foundation to support an overhaul of how poor defendants are treated pretrial.
The organization was founded in 2018 and was modeled after an existing program in New York called the Bronx Freedom Fund, which essentially does the same thing on a smaller geographical scale.
White said the group is planning to continue expanding into other states and cities in the coming months, prioritizing places with the highest incarceration rates.
She said organizers chose Baton Rouge for several reasons, including the fact that Louisiana has historically been home to the highest incarceration rates in the country. The opportunity to work with other partner organizations in the Baton Rouge area also helped seal the deal.
Ultimately White is hoping success in Baton Rouge could highlight the need for bail reform across Louisiana and show “what a better pretrial system could look like.”
White, 29, is no stranger to Baton Rouge’s criminal justice system. She’s the daughter of district court Judge Trudy White, a controversial jurist who recently moved to the civil bench after years overseeing criminal cases.
Ashley White said she’s excited to be back in Baton Rouge. This is her first time living here since she graduated from St. Joseph’s Academy in 2008.
She also noted her new role doesn’t pose a “conflict of interest” for her mom — a woman she said “has given me my moral compass and my drive.”
Rev. Alexis Anderson, a member of the East Baton Rouge Parish Prison reform coalition, said she was surprised and a little wary to learn that Ashley White was the judge’s daughter, but she chalked it up to “a Louisiana thing” since many people in public positions are somehow related.
Anderson said above all she’s glad to have another group monitoring pretrial operations in Baton Rouge.
Some others are more hesitant about the program moving into the area.
Rafael Goyeneche III, president of the nonprofit Metropolitan Crime Commission in New Orleans, said the Bail Project’s lack of discretion in their clients is worrisome, especially considering its potential to serve people with felony arrests.
“Low bail doesn’t necessarily indicate low risk,” Goyeneche said. “Criminals that are arrested in a nonviolent offense today can be involved in a violent offense (in the future).”
But White said she’s confident their work will soon speak for itself as clients show up to court and remain productive members of the community. She hopes the stories and data she complies can fuel conversations about the future of bail and incarceration — especially in a state where prison rates continue to soar and racial disparities remain high.
“What’s exciting here is we are reimagining a new criminal justice system,” White said. “This is a community effort. … It takes all of us to fix this problem.”