CECIL COUNTY — The Cecil Freedom Fund raised over $2,000 during their kickoff fundraiser to support their mission to make bail funds available to anyone, regardless of a defendant’s ability to pay, allowing more people to wait out their legal hearings without being incarcerated.
“People who have the privilege of being out on bail before their hearing show so many immense positive effects,” board member Heather Applegarth said. “They have the time to collaborate with their attorney to build up their defense. It can keep people from losing jobs, it can keep children from going into foster care. It’s really an all encompassing issue.”
The organization works with the Maryland Office of the Public Defender to identify possible defendants who are eligible for the service. The fund helps those with smaller bonds, of around $1,000 or $2,000, who are being prosecuted for low level crimes. Deputy Public Defender Jason Ricke said crimes with low monetary bails are often “nuisance crimes,” actions that do not harm another individual directly but society as a whole, citing disorderly conduct, traffic cases, and trespassing as examples, along with drug charges.
Ricke said defendants who are considered a danger to the community are held without bond. The purpose of bail is to give an incentive to attend trial, as defendants have to pay 10% of their bond to be free before their trial.
“One of the big issues with the criminal justice system is equal access to justice,” Ricke said. “What we find time and time again, is that those with money and resources, are far better off in the justice system than those that don’t. Something like this is very important, because it assists people that don’t have the means to basically pay for their freedom.”
Rothermel said the fund hopes to help people suffering from addiction gain access to resources while they are out on bond to prevent them from sliding back into addiction.
“In Cecil County the opioid crisis has hit everybody,” Rothermel said. “The solution from local officials seems to be to lock people up and CCDC and hope they get better. That’s where we’re really looking to step in.”
Board member Heather Ulrich said the fund hopes to provide wraparound services to help increase the odds the people they help are able to go to court.
Applegarth said the group has spoken with the Baltimore-based Job Opportunities Task Force, for advice on how to run their fund. Ricke said often defendants miss court dates because of a lack of resources, for example a defendant in Cecil County with a suspended license who lives far away from where their trial takes place, may miss their court date because of a lack of transportation. Applegarth said the majority of people who have their bail paid by a bail fund show up to court.
“We’re helping people who had judges already deemed are able to re-enter society while waiting trial, they just cannot access it because of finances,” Ulrich said.
Board member Tim Rothermel said bail money is often reimbursed once the defendant makes their required court appearances so donations can be continuously recycled to help other people.
Ulrich said the impact of being imprisoned for several months or a year while awaiting trial can have a large negative impact on people, citing lost income and the loss of social support as two effects of incarceration that can be alleviated through the fund.
“Locking people up by itself does not reduce recidivism,” Ulrich said. “It actually increases the likelihood of it because of all the social support that is lost, the income that’s lost, it traumatizes kids and families and increases their likelihood of being involved in the justice system.”
Ricke said some states have reformed or removed their cash bail system entirely. In 2021, the California Supreme Court eliminated cash bail for defendants who cannot afford it, writing “that conditioning freedom solely on whether an arrestee can afford bail is unconstitutional.”
“If one person has a better life due to what we’re doing here, that’s what matters,” board member Erol Megahed said.