Greg Guggenmos

SMU student launches community bail fund to help free those charged with nonviolent misdemeanors as they await trial

Greg Guggenmos was intrigued when he heard an NPR story about a program that provides community bail money for indigent New Yorkers. Funds were being made available to people who might otherwise wait days, weeks or months behind bars for nonviolent, misdemeanor crimes because they couldn’t afford bail as low as $50.

Guggenmos did his research and found that 80 percent of the defendants who tapped the New York City fund were found innocent, and 98 percent paid the fund back. He also learned that Dallas didn’t have a program like it.

He decided to do something about it.

The SMU student traveled to New York and studied the system that inspired him. When he returned home, he got to work launching the Community Bail Fund of North Texas, which helps keep poor people accused of minor crimes from languishing in jail. This fall, he plans to distribute his first coordinated bailouts to Dallas residents, drawing from a $20,000 grant he was awarded by New York’s Robert F. Kennedy Foundation this summer.

“In 2014, there were 6,086 people in jail in Dallas County in any given month, and 4,182 of those, on average, were pretrial defendants who hadn’t seen their day in court,” says Guggenmos, a senior and Dedman Scholar who will graduate with a bachelor’s degree in statistical science in December and a master’s degree in applied statistics and data analytics in May 2019.

“Someone could end up in jail for not paying a parking ticket or being accused of shoplifting or possession, but that doesn’t mean they’re a criminal,” Guggenmos added. “In New York, among the defendants given grants, 80 percent of pretrial defendants will…eventually be fully acquitted. If you look at 80 percent of those people awaiting trial in jail as being completely innocent in the eyes of the law, that’s really crazy.”

A defendant who waits five to six months in jail before trial can’t work during that time, Guggenmos adds.

“If their family is on government benefits and the main breadwinner is detained waiting for trial, they may lose access to housing, certain benefits and healthcare, and the defendant will almost certainly lose their job,” he says. “There are a lot of repercussions that impact not only the victim, but others around the victim and the communities they come from as well. The system starts to grind these people up in a lot of ways, the longer they stay in jail.”

Dallas spends $255,000 each day for jailing of pretrial defendants, Guggenmos says, which adds up to $93 million a year – the No. 1 expense in Dallas County.

“It’s important for Dallas to join the national conversation happening around this issue because this isn’t unique to Dallas,” Guggenmos says. “We have a chance to be a leader, especially in the south, in what we do on pretrial justice.”

The Community Bail Fund of North Texas would not have been possible without support Guggenmos received from SMU back when the idea was just a dream. Working with SMU Honors Program Director David Doyle, Guggenmos applied for and received a Richter International Fellowship, a program that allows undergraduate Honors students to conduct independent research projects under a faculty mentor. He then traveled to New York City for two weeks in January 2017 to learn about the funds he’d heard about on the NPR broadcast. The oldest of the funds is barely 10 years old. Younger funds exist in cities as diverse as Chicago, Memphis and Seattle.

Plenty of people heard the NPR story that inspired him, but Guggenmos acted on it because he’d already learned the impact that one person can make.

Before enrolling at SMU, Guggenmos had been home schooled. Upon completing his high school studies, he took a gap year to serve as a lobbyist for the Texas Home School Coalition in Austin. Guggenmos wrote an education bill that successfully passed through the legislative process and earned a signature on the governor’s desk in three months.

“I’ve seen Texas law change because of things I did along with a huge number of other people,” Guggenmos says. “It was a tangible impact where I thought, ‘There’s a problem, I can provide a solution,’ and I thought this wasn’t very different in a lot of ways. It’s a local issue, not a state issue, but I thought, ‘I’ve done this before.’”

Returning from New York, he connected with a nonprofit activist who has been involved in similar pursuits for the indigent and got help creating the structure of the organization and recruiting a board. Meanwhile, Guggenmos secured seed funding from a variety of sources at SMU, such as Engaged Learning, the Community Outreach Fellowship and the Big iDeas competition in 2017.

“Big iDeas was great in a lot of ways because it forced me to make this pitch to ordinary people,” Guggenmos says. “The judges weren’t in the nonprofit sector, they weren’t in criminal justice, and they weren’t attorneys – they were investors. And being able to formulate a pitch where I articulated what the return on investment looks like for society as a whole will be really helpful moving forward.”

“I think once we get some of these bails out, it’s going to grow really fast. We’re excited to see where it will go,” Guggenmos adds. “This is an issue that needs to be talked about and then dealt with. It’s a conversation and a series of stories that need to be told.”

But to realize his dream of consistently distributing 10 to 30 grants a month, Guggenmos knows he will have to find additional sources of funding. In New York, community bail funds are rotational funds, where the full cost of bail is returned when a client appears in court. In Texas, judges can withhold as much as 30 percent of bail in fees.

Despite such challenges, Guggenmos is optimistic about the impact a community bail fund will have on Dallas, the city he loves.

“I think once we get some of these bails out, it’s going to grow really fast. We’re excited to see where it will go,” Guggenmos adds. “This is an issue that needs to be talked about and then dealt with. It’s a conversation and a series of stories that need to be told.”

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By Kathleen Scott