- The Washington Times - Monday, January 10, 2022

Nikki Sterling was heartbroken in October when she learned her 24-year-old son, Dylan, had been fatally shot in Indianapolis while attempting to intervene on behalf of a friend in a drug deal gone bad.

Her grief turned to frustration and anger when she learned that the man accused of killing her son was released last year from jail on a $5,650 bond paid in part by a nonprofit dedicated to addressing social and racial inequity. He had been locked up on a felony drug charge and was facing three other felony charges in pending cases.

In the months since, Ms. Sterling has become a leading voice calling for more oversight and restrictions on groups such as The Bail Project, the California-based charity that helped free the man accused of shooting her son. She is set to tell her story Tuesday to lawmakers in Indiana.

The groups have emerged across the country in recent years as part of the backlash against tough-on-crime prosecutors and policies. Ms. Sterling, who now lives in Arizona, said the organizations are much too quick to go to bat for defendants accused of dangerous crimes.

“There’s no accountability to The Bail Project. … Once they’re released, and then there’s no oversight,” she told The Washington Times.

“I’ve been trying to, you know, bring it to public awareness that these organizations are out there and the types of individuals that they’re putting back on the street have already been arrested for violent crimes.”

The Bail Project and similar groups, including the Minnesota Freedom Fund and the Massachusetts Bail Fund, have been criticized for contributing to the “revolving door” of the criminal justice system.

The Minnesota Freedom Fund, which was hyped in a 2020 tweet by then-Sen. Kamala Harris, faced public backlash after it helped pay a $1,500 bail for accused domestic abuser George Howard. While out on release, Mr. Howard was arrested and charged with murder in connection with a road rage shooting in August that year.

The same month, the Massachusetts Bail Fund came under public scrutiny for posting $15,000 bail for Shawn McClinton, a convicted sex offender in jail on a rape charge. After he was bailed out, McClinton was arrested again in Boston and charged in a new sexual assault case.

The Bail Project was started in 2018 by Robin Steinberg, a public defender and social justice advocate. The Pasadena, California-based nonprofit operates in 18 states, according to its website, and aims to “prevent incarceration and combat racial and economic disparities in the bail system.”

“Because bail is returned at the end of a case, donations to The Bail Project National Revolving Bail Fund can be recycled and reused to pay bail two to three times per year, maximizing the impact of every dollar,” the website says.

The determination of whether to assist a defendant, the group’s national director of legal and policy says, involves a variety of factors.

“We ask people about their needs, for example, drug treatment, mental health counseling, etc., so we can connect them to resources as needed,” Twyla Carter told The Times. “We also create individualized support plans to ensure that a person will come to court.”

Ms. Sterling said the group should give more weight to a defendant’s criminal charges.

Court documents show Travis Lang, the man accused of killing her son, Dylan McGinnis, was in jail last January for a felony charge of possession of cocaine — and was facing three felony charges in other pending cases involving burglary, residential entry and resisting law enforcement.

Still, with the Bail Project’s help, he was freed.

According to the probable cause affidavit, Mr. McGinnis and a female friend were in Mr. McGinnis’ car with Mr. Lang when an argument erupted over cash and drugs — heroin and Xanax.

At one point, the woman reportedly punched Mr. Lang in the face.

“My son was trying to de-escalate the argument and was apologizing to Travis Lang” just moments before the meeting turned deadly, Ms. Sterling said.

McGinnis was pronounced dead at the scene, and his female friend was treated at a hospital.

Ms. Sterling said her son was working as an electrician with hopes of taking over his father’s electrical business. He was not a drug user and was helping the woman, who was dealing with substance abuse issues, “to try to get back on her feet,” she said.

“And I know in my heart that he decided to go with her … just to be there to make sure that she was not in danger,” she said.

She added that the medical examiner’s toxicology report shows her son did not have any drugs in his system.

“Dylan was such a vibrant young man, happy-go-lucky,” Ms. Sterling said. “Most importantly, one of [his] biggest characteristics was, you know, was his heart for other people and his generosity and just being helpful to others in different situations.”

She pointed out that Mr. Lang is one of three defendants charged with felonies in Indiana who committed violent crimes last year while free on bail with help from the Bail Project.

Court records show the group paid $1,500 bail last January for Marcus Garvin, who was charged with felony battery in a stabbing. While free on bail, he was arrested again in a fatal stabbing in July and has since been charged with murder.

The group also paid $750 bail in April for Deonta Williams, who was charged with felony burglary. Last month, Mr. Williams was arrested again and now faces attempted murder charges in the stabbings of two police officers.

Ms. Sterling said these incidents prove that groups such as The Bail Project need more regulations, oversight and accountability.

National Police Association spokeswoman Betsy Brantner Smith echoed her sentiments and said the association encourages “legislation that strictly regulates charitable bail funds or eliminates their use altogether for those arrested and accused of violent felonies.”

State Sen. Aaron Freeman agrees.

Mr. Freeman, a Republican, announced last month that he is sponsoring a bill that would require charitable bail organizations to register with the Indiana Department of Insurance.

The legislation, known as Senate Bill 8, also would prohibit groups from posting bonds for defendants with felony charges.

“In the past year, we have seen numerous violent crimes occur because these organizations are enabling violent offenders to go free and without supervision,” Mr. Freeman said in a statement.

Ms. Carter says SB8 is “misguided” and “is not about oversight and accountability.”

“It’s not as if the bail bonds industry can somehow prevent these tragedies. A bail bonds company posted part of the bond that resulted in Travis Lang’s release, the man accused of killing Ms. Sterling’s son,” she said. “The Bail Project only provided assistance to Mr. Lang’s family for the other portion of the bond because they could not afford the bondsman’s fee for the full amount.”

She noted that The Bail Project provides court reminders and free transportation to those it helps bail out. In a recent report, the group said it has paid bail for 941 defendants — 95% of whom have attended their court hearings – since opening in Indianapolis in 2018.

The group’s goal is “to ensure that when a judge sets bail for a defendant, they’re not sitting in jail simply because their family lacks the resources to pay the bail or afford a bail bondsman,” Ms. Carter said.

Ms. Sterling, however, says a defendant’s criminal charges aren’t being given the necessary scrutiny.

She is set to testify about the bill on Tuesday before the Indiana Senate Committee on Corrections and Criminal Law. If enacted, the law would go into effect on July 1.

“I want Indiana to make the change first and foremost,” she said. “But nationwide, I would love to see this table turn into, you know, the right direction where violent offenders aren’t able to be bailed out by terrible organizations and put back out on the street.

“That would be my end goal. That would be my wish.”

• Emily Zantow can be reached at ezantow@washingtontimes.com.

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