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Mass. Bail Fund Answers Criticism After Freeing Convicted Sex Offender Accused Of New Rape

A bail fund in Massachusetts is defending itself after freeing people facing serious crimes, including a convicted rapist who has since been charged with a new rape.

The Massachusetts Bail Fund said in a statement Wednesday that it bails out people based on financial need "regardless of charge or court history" because it believes pretrial detention is "harmful and racist."

The Cambridge-based organization, whose motto is "Free Them All," said criticism over its practices only serves to "prop up a white supremacist institution" that studies have shown imposes higher bails on people of color than whites for the same crimes.

Other bail funds that enjoyed a surge in donations after the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police in May have also faced controversies over their spending.

The Minnesota Freedom Fund received more than $30 million in donations following Floyd's death, thanks in part to social media shoutouts from notable names like Steve Carell, Seth Rogen, and U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris, now the Democratic candidate for vice president.

But the fund was criticized for not spending the windfall fast enough. Some donors also objected to the fund bailing out federally detained immigrants, and a local news station this week reported the fund used donations to recently free people charged with murder, sex crimes and other violent offenses.

"At a time of mass mobilizations to disrupt the power of policing and systemic racism, using isolated cases to whip up 'crime and punishment' fearmongering fits a centuries-old pattern," the Massachusetts Bail Fund said in a lengthy statement posted on its website. "We will continue to post bail as we are able, ensuring that freedom is not just for the wealthy and that presumption of innocence is preserved."

The comments are the first from the organization since criticism of its work has mounted in recent days, including from a number of one-time supporters. The fund was established by a group of social workers in 2011 to advocate for bail reform and support low income clients.

The Mass. Bail Fund's administrator Michael Cox joined WBUR's Morning Edition to discuss further on Thursday:

The fund says it posts bail for people based on attorney referrals and it will continue its work. "What we're seeing here is really a racialized attack, where we see fear-mongering to create a narrative," the fund's administrator Michael Cox told WBUR. "These narratives set us back and this is how we got to 2 million people incarcerated in the first place."

A student group at Boston University abruptly canceled a virtual concert last Friday meant to benefit the fund, apologizing for its "ignorance" about what the group actually did.

The bail fund posted $15,000 for the release of Shawn McClinton, a convicted sex offender facing rape charges. Prosecutors say McClinton raped a woman just weeks after his July release. He's back in custody and facing aggravated rape, kidnapping, strangulation and other new charges. His lawyer didn't respond to an email seeking comment Wednesday.

The organization in recent weeks has also paid roughly $85,000 to bail out a man facing attempted murder charges, and has paid out tens of thousands of dollars more for the release of others, including a man accused of robbing five women and another facing three counts of child rape, The Boston Globe has reported.

Before the influx of donations, the relatively obscure charity capped bail payments at $500.

Suffolk County District Attorney Rachael Rollins said Tuesday that paying for the release of McClinton was "the act of a coward."

"I would have so much more respect for the Bail Fund if they had bailed him out and then let him stay in one of their homes," she said in a statement. "Because that's what family members and friends usually do when they bail a loved one out."

The progressive Democrat, who has faced her own criticism for her more lenient approach to prosecution, also defended her office's decision not to request McClinton be held without bail in the first place. (Rollins was not DA when McClinton was originally charged.) Rollins said prosecutors wanted to spare the victim from more trauma since it would have required a dangerousness hearing.

"This office made a decision to request bail and not a dangerousness hearing to spare the victim of rape any additional trauma, I can absolutely live with that decision," she told WBUR. Rollins said her office is in talks with the court system and judges to review bail setting procedures.

Boston Police Commissioner William Gross last week said he was "absolutely appalled" at McClinton's release. Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey said releasing McClinton was "dangerous and irresponsible" and promised her office would be looking into how the bail fund is spending its donations.

The Bail Fund maintained that it is a "statistical rarity" for a person to be arrested on a new offense while out on bail.

It cited a 2016 Massachusetts Trial Court study that found less than 7% of all people released pretrial were arraigned on new criminal charge while their case was pending.

With writing and reporting by the Associated Press' Philip Marcelo and reporting by WBUR's Deborah Becker

This article was originally published on August 12, 2020.

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