NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - “We are the New Orleans Safety and Freedom Fund, and we exist to educate the general public about the harm that money bail is creating,” said Jennifer Schnidman.
The New Orleans Safety and Freedom Fund is an organization that bonds people out of jail for free. Some have described the group’s actions as playing a high-stakes game. Today, in their first television interview, Freedom Fund members Jennifer Schnidman Medbery and Chris Laibe speak out about what they do and why they do it.
“We post bond for individuals who judges have deemed low-risk to public safety who were sitting in jail simply because they were too poor to get out,” Schnidman said.
They said about 100 people are members of the Freedom Fund, and members donate money to the cause. One of the founders of the organization is a member of Mayor Latoya Cantrell’s administration. Joshua Cox is the director of strategic initiatives for the city of New Orleans and also an attorney.
“Has the city determined and investigated to see how this program is being operated? Are they satisfied in having their employees actively engaging in posting bail for people that the police department put in jail?” asked Metropolitan Crime Commission head Rafeal Goyeneche.
Cantrell says she has no objection to the work Cox is doing with the Freedom Fund.
“So there’s no conflict, according to City Hall," Schnidman said. "We will direct your questions to them. What we can say is that Josh Cox is a business executive that is part of a group and works with the Freedom Fund without compensation in his private time, but it’s also important to note that this isn’t about Josh or Jen or Chris, this is about a group of business leaders doing what we know will make our city safer.”
A law enforcement source tells FOX 8 that since February of last year, Freedom Fund members posted 374 bonds valued at nearly $300,000 for suspected criminals. Schnidman and Laibe said they’ve posted closer to 200 bonds.
“The data we generated since April 2017 is backing up our hypothesis, and that is (that) money bail doesn’t have a tie to your likelihood to return to court,” Laibe said.
Orleans District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro said bonds are actually set to ensure a person will return for their next court appearance.
“Look, the things that we are most interested in is when someone post a bond, they show up in court and certainly we understand that’s one of the purposes for bond, to ensure the person’s presence in court,” Cannizzaro said.
When police arrested Dequan Ayers for distribution of marijuana, the New Orleans Freedom Fund bonded him out. Ayers failed to show up in court twice. Police recently re-arrested him after officers say he beat and robbed a tourist in the French Quarter.
Schnidman, though, pointed to the data collected by the organization.
“We have an appearance rate within our fund of 92% who show up on their own. All we do is text or call a family member and remind them of their court date,” she said.
When it comes to who they’re bonding out of jail, she said the organization looks at the amount of bond set for an individual.
“We’re looking at the judge making a determination, and when they set a bond that is $5,000 lower, that’s an indication that they are not a threat to public safety,” Schnidman said.
Police arrested Daniel Bonney back in November of last year for aggravated assault. His bond was originally set at $5,000, and by law, because it’s a crime of violence, he was not eligible for an ROR or free bond. Commissioner Robert Blackburn reduce his bond to $1. Bonney didn’t even have to pay that to get out of jail because Schnidman bonded him out. Police arrested Bonney again in June of this year on drug and aggravated battery charges. He has since pleaded guilty in both cases.
“Bail is being set at levels that are less than what it cost to pay for a speeding ticket, and on top of that you’ve got third parties that are providing bail for those offenders. I think that it is potentially a serious situation,” Goyeneche said.
“When critics try and shift to the anomalies, it’s important to shift back to what the data shows, which is the vast majority of individuals do not get re-arrested, and we are all safer as a result,” Schnidman said.
The members told us that the Public Defenders Office provides the Freedom Fund with names of people who need to be bonded out of jail. They also said the Public Defenders Office has no formal relationship with the fund.