A 31-year-old man sat in the New Orleans jail for 15 days this June until he got surprising news from his attorney: Someone was posting his $2,500 bail for a heroin possession arrest.

It wasn’t his fiancée, who had been trying to scrounge up the cash.

“Bonded out by who?” he recalled asking. “I couldn’t believe it. They just picked me.”

The answer was an organization called the New Orleans Safety and Freedom Fund. Until this month, it has flown under the radar — except for the lucky defendants awaiting trial who have been released thanks to its money.

The group's founders include Joshua Cox, a senior adviser to Mayor LaToya Cantrell who has continued posting bails since Cantrell took office, including that of the man who was arrested for heroin possession.

To the man released from jail, who asked to remain anonymous, they are the “bond angels.” His charge was refused by prosecutors the day after his release.

To Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro, they are a shadowy group that has thrown a monkey wrench into the bail system and put public safety at risk, in cases like a man who was later arrested in a French Quarter robbery.

More than 200 people have been released in the 17 months that the group’s revolving fund has been in operation, it says. Now, group members are coming forward to explain their larger goal of ending the city’s cash bail system, which has come under attack in a recent federal court decision.

“Nobody is being paid. No profit is being generated from this endeavor,” said Jennifer Medbery, a local software executive and a co-founder of the group. “Success to us means putting ourselves out of business.”

‘Pay it forward’

The group’s entrance into the tangled arena of the New Orleans criminal justice system comes at a time when the money bail system is increasingly being called into question.

Earlier this year, U.S. District Judge Eldon Fallon said that Magistrate Judge Harry Cantrell and Magistrate Court commissioners had an unconstitutional conflict of interest when they set the bail amounts that fund court operations through a fee on the bails.

At the same time, however, court commissioners are increasingly setting low cash bails for defendants — or releasing them on their own recognizance — over the objections of bail bond companies.

The court commissioners are operating in line with a project begun under former Mayor Mitch Landrieu to reduce the size of New Orleans’ inmate population.

In an interview on Tuesday, Medbery and another group member, software developer Chris Laibe, said the Freedom Fund sprang out of the same concerns the federal judge had about the New Orleans bail system.

Medbery and Laibe said a group of entrepreneurs like them, under the name of the Krewe de Nieux, had been looking for a way to change the city’s criminal justice system.

“New Orleans has been good to us. So as the association evolved, we looked for ways to pay it forward,” Laibe said.

After a period of study, Cox incorporated the Freedom Fund as a low-profit limited liability company in May 2017. Medbery said she posted bail several times before then as a trial run. The group’s activity rapidly accelerated after that.

The fund's members said it was founded on the idea that the money bail system is deeply broken. Rich people accused of serious crimes can go free while poor people accused of minor crimes languish in jail, unable to afford bail, they argue.

Medbery said the group supports reforms along the lines of Washington, D.C., which has done away with money bail. Instead, judges there decide whether to release a defendant based upon a “risk assessment” of whether they will show up for future court dates or commit crimes upon their release.

“I want to be crystal clear that we believe that money bail is actually not making us safer,” Medbery said.

In the short period since its creation, the group has succeeded in bailing out a large number of defendants. According to records obtained from a law enforcement source, Medbery and Cox have posted almost $300,000 in bail on 374 charges. Medbery said the numbers are closer to $200,000 and 200 defendants.

Either figure pales in comparison to the 17,000 arrests logged in Orleans Parish in 2016.

When defendants’ cases are closed, their bail money is returned to the Freedom Fund, which can then apply it toward other defendants’ bail.

The initial capital came from Freedom Fund members, according to Medbery. She said the group has not accepted money from outside foundations.

The group's criteria for choosing defendants to help are a bail set below $5,000, residence in Orleans Parish and community ties — so the group can contact family members who will urge defendants to return to court. Medbery said the $5,000 figure was chosen as a “proxy” for the Magistrate Court’s decisions about a defendant’s risk to public safety.

“We are not interested in bonding out anyone who represents a public safety risk," she said. "We are simply getting fathers, mothers, employees in the French Quarter, employees in hospitality, construction workers, etc., out and back to their jobs, and back to their families.”

DA: Group is 'disturbing'

Critics see the group’s work differently. They question its selection criteria and its ability to persuade defendants to return for future court appearances.

Cannizzaro declined an interview request, but he made his feelings clear in a statement.

“This is a very disturbing set of circumstances,” he said.

Family members or friends who post a cash bail with their own money will encourage a defendant to show up in court when ordered, he said. Otherwise, they stand to lose their money.

“But when there is some outside group, some agency we don’t know anything about, simply posting the bond for the individual and walking away, then it gives the defendant no reason, no incentive to show up. And so he doesn’t have to be accountable,” he continued.

Cannizzaro singled one recent case as a cause for concern.

In July, Medbery posted $3,500 bail for a man named DeQuan Ayers, who was accused of possession with intent to distribute marijuana. Police said that three months later, after skipping out on court appearances, he was caught on video taking part in the beating and mugging of an Arizona tourist.

In another case, Lance M. Lewis was accused of raping a longtime friend as she slept on his couch in New Orleans East in May. The woman said she took a pain pill to help her sleep and woke up to find Lewis penetrating her. Lewis’ $5,000 bail on a count of third-degree rape was posted more than two months later — by Cox, the mayoral employee.

Medbery said that in every case her group was following the “proxy” of risk set by Magistrate Court.

“While there are individuals in our community who would look to an outlier in the data (who is rearrested) and shift our focus to the outlier, I would encourage us to shift our focus back to the vast majority of individuals who we post bond for, who are not rearrested,” she said.

The group has not made a list of its beneficiaries public. However, Medbery said that only 5 percent of those the fund has bailed out have been rearrested after their release. In addition, 65 percent of the group’s clients ultimately had all of their charges refused, she said.

'Community at risk'

For now, Cannizzaro has stopped short of criticizing the mayor. But he did mention the city’s role in bail reform efforts in his statement.

“Although city officials advocate for reducing New Orleans’ jail population, that goal must be achieved through fewer people committing crimes, not by disregarding state law and public safety. This scheme makes police arrests inconsequential and puts our community at risk,” he said.

The group accepts referrals from the Orleans Public Defenders, and at one bail hearing a public defender said the group “works with our office to post bonds.” Medbery, however, said the organizations have no formal relationship.

Rafael Goyeneche, the president of the nonprofit Metropolitan Crime Commission, said the group should make its own evaluation of a defendant’s risk to the community rather than relying on judges or defense attorneys. He also questioned why the group is posting bail in cases like domestic violence.

“These people, I think, are well-intentioned, but they don’t truly understand some of the risks they’re taking with public safety,” he said. “If you’re getting (arrested people) out of jail, I think you also have a responsibility to the victims in these cases.”

The fund also has its supporters, however. Will Snowden, the director of the Vera Institute in New Orleans and a former public defender, painted it as a financial boon for the city since defendants released on bail can work jobs instead of occupying jail beds.

Snowden also argued that the current system gives undue leverage to the District Attorney’s Office to force defendants to plead guilty.

“We have gone far astray from understanding what the presumption of innocence is,” he said. “We need to remind folks that pretrial detention is supposed to be the carefully limited exception,” not the norm for people who get arrested.  

Goyeneche questioned why Cox has continued to post bail since joining Cantrell’s administration. In many cases Cox has personally posted bail for the same defendants arrested by the Police Department that reports to the mayor, he said.

He also wondered whether Cox has run afoul of a state statute that bars attorneys from posting bail.

Medbery said Cox does not receive payment for his work with the fund, but she deferred other questions to the city.

City Hall press secretary LaTonya Norton did not answer a list of questions about Cox, including whether Cantrell was aware of his role in the fund before a report last week on Fox8, whether the fund’s donors include city contractors, and whether Cox’s work for the mayor includes bail reform.

However, she did issue a brief statement of support.

“Mayor Cantrell has complete faith in Mr. Cox, and no objection to the work he does independently with the Freedom Fund on his own time,” she said. “The mayor is not aware of any impropriety, and we believe there is no conflict with his work as part of the administration.”

Follow Matt Sledge on Twitter, @mgsledge.

msledge@theadvocate.com | (504) 636-7432