The burden of bail: A three-part series
The CT Mirror is exploring the effects and challenges of Connecticut’s cash bail system.
Two weeks ago: One man’s uphill struggle to stay out of prison illustrates the pitfalls of the system
Last week: Why New Jersey got rid of most cash bail
This week: Financing freedom through GoFundMe
Audrey Jordan wasn’t sure what size clothes to buy for her brother Bryan. He hadn’t worn anything other than a prison jumpsuit in 16 years.
Surely his weight had changed since he was sentenced. She perused the racks at Marshall’s and TJ Maxx and settled on a pack of white T-shirts, tank tops and jeans. They all wound up being too small.
It was the middle of 2021. Audrey had to get clothes because she knew Bryan would be coming home after his next court date, which was coming up soon.
Audrey’s daughter, Alexis, had led a years-long effort to raise money so her Uncle Bryan could post $600,000 bond. It took two years, but they finally had enough money to pay a bondsman — typically 10% or less of the bond amount.
No one in the family had anywhere near enough cash, so they had to collect it from donations and at community fundraising events. It was hard, Audrey said, especially when they were asking people to donate during a pandemic, when money was tight because people were out of work.
“But you want your loved one home,” Audrey said, “and so you just do what you have to do.”
They were assisted by the Connecticut Bail Fund, a New Haven-based group that helps people post bail so they can await trial at home. Jewu Richardson, the nonprofit’s co-executive director, said it is a “harsh, sad reality” that families like the Jordans have to rely on community events and a GoFundMe to post bail.
But it’s unusual, Richardson said, for a family to raise as much cash as the Jordans did.
“What Brian represents is a population of people that are suffering behind the walls, that are in similar situations like his, but they don’t have the resources to advocate on their behalf,” said Richardson.
Bryan walked out of the New Haven courthouse a free man on July 27, 2021. He wore his orange jumpsuit as he stepped into the summer heat, lowering his mask to protect him from COVID-19 to smile at his loved ones as they cheered his release.
Audrey and Alexis were elated. Alexis, who was 8 when her uncle went to jail for manslaughter, said it felt like a weight had lifted off her shoulders when she saw Bryan walk out of the courthouse. Audrey, meanwhile, said it felt like their family was finally complete.
“The missing piece of the puzzle was back in the family again.”
A way out — for a price
On Sept. 19, 2005, Bryan Jordan got into a fight with Curtis Hannons and Hannons’ brother in the McConaughy Terrace housing project in New Haven. The crowd around them broke up the dispute before things got out of hand. Bryan got in his car and drove away, but he came back a few minutes later.
The fight resumed. The people around Hannons and Jordan tried to calm them down again. Bryan would testify in later hearings that although he didn’t see their weapons, he knew Hannons and his brother had guns.
Someone fired their weapon. Bryan pulled out a gun of his own and shot back, testifying that he didn’t think there was anything he could do except fire in the direction where he thought the first shot came from. Hannons was hit in the head, two inches below his right ear. He was transported to the hospital, where he later died.
Bryan fled to Georgia. Department of Correction records indicate he was admitted to jail on Nov. 14, 2005. Two years later, jurors found him guilty of first-degree manslaughter with a firearm and carrying a pistol without a permit. He was sentenced to 45 years.
A decade into his sentence, Jordan filed a writ of habeas corpus. He claimed that the lawyer representing him in the 2007 trial had been ineffective because she hadn’t called six witnesses — among them Alexis and Audrey — who might have changed the outcome.
Superior Court Judge Hunchu Kwak sided with Jordan, ruling on Oct. 1, 2018, that there was no strategic reasoning for not calling those witnesses to testify to support Jordan’s claim that he had been acting in self-defense.
The ruling gave Jordan the chance to get out of prison on bail. After the judge’s decision, Jordan was technically being held as a pretrial suspect again, since Kwak ruled he could be tried again for manslaughter.
The state appealed Kwak’s ruling, but Jordan had a chance to bond out before the case was resolved. On May 21, 2019, a judge set the bond at $450,000, ordering that if he was going to post it, he must do so at the courthouse so the judge could consider subjecting him to electronic monitoring.
State’s attorneys — who in previous court hearings had described the shooting as a “cold-blooded killing” — sought to raise the bond after the judge set it at $450,000, arguing in July 2021 that Jordan might flee because an appellate court had since overturned Kwak’s decision and the case was in appeal limbo. After all, the state argued, he’d run before when he was facing prison time, when he went to Georgia after Hannons’ death.
“The court should increase the bond to ensure his presence to either face these charges once again or to turn himself in to serve the remainder of his sentence if the Connecticut Supreme Court affirms the Appellate Court’s decision,” Craig P. Nowak, senior assistant state’s attorney, wrote in a motion dated July 16, 2021.
Judge Gerald Harmon set the bond at $600,000.
Raising the money
Alexis started collecting donations in May 2019, after Bryan’s bond was set at $450,000. She started a GoFundMe account and shared it on social media, and she took money she earned from her business selling dog and cat treats and put it toward Bryan’s bond. The family held “Rasta Pasta” events and fish fry dinners. And they partnered with Connecticut Bail Fund, helping raise awareness about Bryan’s case by talking about it on a radio show.
“I feel like the more we branched out and worked with other people, that actually helped expose this,” Alexis said.
The Bail Fund typically works with incarcerated people whose bonds are less than $20,000. But Richardson knows Bryan personally, and his organization and others in the advocacy community kept in touch with Bryan while he was locked up. That meant he had support that many others held pretrial do not.
“He had that luxury of having people that really cared and supported him, that kept amplifying the injustice that he was going through,” Richardson said. “A lot of people don’t have that luxury of support from the community. So a lot of the stuff that they’re doing, they’re doing in silence, and it goes unheard and unnoticed.”
Rather than imposing their own suggestions, Bail Fund supports families’ ideas for how to come up with money, so they shared the Jordan family GoFundMe on social media and helped where they could with the fundraisers and raising awareness. They even offered up their office as a space to host the fish fry.
But their support went beyond the tangible. They became a creator of a community, supporting Bryan and his family by not only helping them get the money to bail Bryan out but by showing them that they weren’t alone in their struggle.
There’s an empowerment that comes from the Bail Fund’s efforts, Richardson said. Many families trying to raise money to bail someone out go through those experiences alone. Bail Fund’s support of families shows them they have support not only from the nonprofit but from their fellow community members.
“It’s therapeutic when things like this happen, where they don’t have to suffer by themselves,” said Richardson.
Bryan needed community support. “Our family is not the family that just has hundreds of dollars lying around in a savings account, where we can just pull out, ‘Oh well, here’s $10,000 to go towards a bail,’” said Audrey.
And it’s not like Bryan could post it by himself. After all, Richardson said, besides a paltry sum he might have made working in the prison system, Bryan didn’t have an income for the 16 years he was incarcerated.
“How can a person post a bond that high without support from the community?” Richardson asked.
But Bryan’s situation coincided with a moment.
Melanie Newport, an assistant professor of history at UConn who has been studying pretrial justice issues for the past decade, said bail funds nationwide have benefited from a surge in donations during the past few years, especially during the pandemic.
“Activists have been able to harness both the energy and expertise of lawyers who were deeply frustrated with the kinds of bail policies that they were encountering,” Newport said. “Coupling that with the kind of philanthropic enthusiasm, it’s very easy to raise money on platforms like Twitter.”
Newport said there are three reasons why bond funds are experiencing an increase in donations. For one, many people had extra money once the country went into lockdown in the early months of COVID-19. Second, people afraid of catching the virus from a mass protest were looking for other ways to support the Black Lives Matter movement after George Floyd’s murder. And third, Newport said, bail funds offer donors a chance to make an immediate difference in a person’s life by helping them get out of jail.
Newport, who is working on a book about the Cook County Jail, said the Chicago Community Bond Fund received such a windfall of donations that its website crashed and they encouraged people to donate to other organizations.
“It was kind of a remarkable problem to go from these really small outfits to suddenly they’re almost like more flush than they’re comfortable with,” said Newport.
A shared risk
State statute provides a formula for how much a person is supposed to pay a bondsman for taking on the risk of getting them out of jail. The fee is 10% up to the first $5,000, then 7% for the balance. In Bryan’s case, that would make his premium, the amount he would have to pay to get out of jail, $42,150.
The law also allows for people to make a down payment of the full premium, 35% of the cost, so they don’t have to pay the full amount at once. That would have meant Bryan would need to pay $14,752.50 to get out of jail. He would then have 15 months to pay the remaining $27,397.50.
Alexis said she and her family ended up raising about $10,000. But getting the money wasn’t the only hurdle. To ensure the bond company got all its money for bailing Bryan out, Bryan would need co-signers, volunteers who would chip in and cover the cost of the $500 a month Bryan was supposed to pay if he couldn’t.
Getting people to co-sign was even harder than getting them to donate, Alexis said. “Some people, they’re looking at that as, ‘I’m not signing my name on the dotted line for nobody, because that’s a huge responsibility if things don’t go right.’”
She asked anyone who might say yes, even co-workers who had never met her uncle. The risk even made Alexis nervous; after one of her co-workers offered to co-sign, she told them to forget about it, not wanting them to be on the hook.
Alexis said they wound up getting 10 co-signers, herself included.
“I knew once Bryan was to come home, he would be on his toes, and he’d actually get a job, and he was going to be the man that he’s supposed to be,” Alexis said. “No missing payments and anything like that. I don’t feel like that would have ever been a problem, because Bryan isn’t that type of person.”
Bond companies need co-signers because they are putting themselves on the line by bonding someone out of jail, said Mary Casey, owner of Casey Bail Bonds Inc. Casey’s company didn’t bail Bryan out, but she has been an active member of the state’s commercial bond industry for almost 45 years.
“We as surety agents are lending defendants money to get out on bail, and just like in a bank loan, you want to make sure your assets are covered in the event the defendant absconds and does not show up in court,” Casey said.
If they do run, Casey said, “you then turn around and go to your indemnitors, and either find out where the defendant is and remand him back in custody or ask they pay the full amount of the bond, because that’s what they legally have signed to do.”
The burdens of bond
It cost a lot of money to bond Bryan out of jail, but his freedom was priceless. He tried to make the most of his time at home, getting a job and becoming a fully matriculated student at the University of New Haven, pursuing a degree through the Yale Prison Education Initiative, which he had started earning when he was incarcerated.
He gave talks on the transformative effects college courses offer the incarcerated and spoke on the Bail Fund’s radio show, offering thoughtful reflections of the time he spent incarcerated and the effect it had on his family. And he talked about his case publicly, imploring prosecutors to use their power of discretion and stop pursuing the case against him.
Bryan described being home after so long as awkward, confusing and frustrating. Getting a job was not as difficult as figuring out how to be a part of a family again.
“Being back in society was hard,” Bryan said in a phone call with the CT Mirror.
His freedom would prove short-lived. On Nov. 5, 2021 the state Supreme Court agreed with the appellate court: Kwak had gotten it wrong. His appellate lawyer petitioned for reconsideration of the decision, which the Supreme Court denied on Dec. 21, 2021. Jordan would have to to turn himself in and serve the rest of his 45-year sentence. He’d been free for five months.
Bryan hadn’t been able to save any money when he was home. If he’s unable to make his monthly bond payments, the burden will fall to his cosigners.
“He’s been gone for two days, and already the bail bondsman called me this morning, asking me what’s going on as far as with the bond,” said Alexis.
By law, defendants have 15 months to pay the balance of a bond financed by a bondsman. If the balance has not been paid within that time, or if they are 60 days late on a payment, bond agents must file a lawsuit to try and collect from the defendant or their co-signers.
If they are successful in civil court and the payments still aren’t made despite the judgment, bondsmen can apply to the court for a wage or property execution, meaning they can place a lien on a person’s car or property, or garnish their wages.
But even with a civil judgment in favor of the bondsmen, Casey said, it can be hard to collect money they are owed because, often, defendants and their co-signers aren’t working and don’t own property.
Co-signers serve as more of a “psychological advantage,” in Casey’s words, than as someone bondsmen can sue to get their money.
“You would use them to ascertain where the defendant might be,” she said. “But more often than not, they probably don’t have the financial means to fulfill the legal obligation on the bond.”
But someone like Bryan, who is already incarcerated, will be brought to their next court date from jail. There’s no risk of what Casey described as a “worst case scenario” for a bondsman, that the defendant goes on the run and the bondsman is on the hook for the amount of their bond.
Nonetheless, the bail company that got Bryan out of jail has to try to get its money back, Casey said, because if it doesn’t, it’s essentially a form of rebating — charging less for a bond than what is statutorily required.
Casey has been in the bond industry for more than four decades. As the former president of the Connecticut State Surety Association and vice president of the Professional Bail Agents of the United States, she said she helped write the laws mandating the steps bond companies must take to get the money they are owed. Bond companies earn their money the second a defendant walks out of jail, Casey said, once the bondsman assumes the risk of covering someone’s bond if they don’t show up to court. Only after the bondsman attempts to collect the money can they write off the debt.
“According to the law, you have no other choice,” Casey said. “What they have done if they fail to collect is rebate the bond.”
Think about it from a consumer standpoint, Casey said. If you have one person held in jail on a $5,000 bond, the bondsman fee is $500. If you have another person who has a $5,000 bond but who only pays $100 to get out of jail, the consumer in the first example has paid more.
Where’s the fairness in that? Casey asked. And how does it reflect on you as a businessperson if other bail companies are rebating and offering a lower price, and you’re just following the law?
Casey faulted the Department of Insurance, charged with the oversight of surety bond agents in Connecticut.
“If we had a regulatory authority that was responsible and reliable, then they would be doing an audit and recognize that there was not an attempt made to collect, and they would be fined as such,” said Casey.
“For five months, he had his freedom,” Casey said when she learned of Bryan’s situation. “And he had to have known his risk — that the appeal might have been denied.”
Bryan conceded that the bondsman in his case did their job: they got him out of prison.
But he was frantic to get out, and his loved ones were eager for him to come home, making them eager to co-sign.
“People profit off of this, profiting off your desperation,” Bryan said. “And people in your family want to see you out, so they don’t care about signing the papers.”
Bryan went back to jail on Dec. 27, 2021. Now, he’s trying to get back to the life he started building over the five months he was free. He filed a sentence modification application that relies heavily on the conduct he exhibited when he was out on bond and the issues he raised in his habeas petition.
“Sentence modifications almost always rely on promises: ‘I have been so good while imprisoned,’ they say, ‘that you can trust me to do even better while home,’” Attorney W. Theodore Koch III wrote in the application. “This case is different, because Mr. Jordan has already been served freedom, and he did not waste it. And then, when the Court asked him to go back to prison, he quietly obeyed.”
Considering the length of his sentence, Bryan doesn’t regret posting bond, even if it cost him and his family dearly.
Before bonding out last summer, Bryan hadn’t seen his mother in 10 years. She doesn’t have a car, and couldn’t afford to make the trek to go see him when he was in prisons in Suffield, Newtown or Uncasville.
People who aren’t imprisoned take it for granted that they can hug and kiss their mothers on the cheek whenever they want, Bryan said.
“I don’t know what type of price you put on that,” he said on a phone call two days before going back to jail. “How much would you pay to do that again?”
Two and a half months later, on March 3, 2022, a judge granted Bryan’s sentence modification, cutting 20 years off his 45-year sentence. Koch said it wasn’t clear when Bryan was getting out, but his next step was to file a commutation.
According to the Department of Correction, the latest date Bryan could be released is Oct. 7, 2027.
This reporting was made possible, in part, through support from the Fund for Investigative Journalism.