SMU Fourth Year Tackling Criminal Justice Reform
Fourth year Statistical Science major Greg Guggenmos was inspired to help those accused of minor crimes who cannot afford bail avoid waiting days, weeks, or even months in jail awaiting trial. His new nonprofit, the Community Bail Fund of North Texas, is responsible for one of the largest single bailouts by any fund in the country.
One evening in the summer of 2016, I was listening to KERA when the reporter started talking about pretrial detention in New York City. I had never heard of cities locking people away simply because they were poor, and as soon as I got home I began investigating the situation in Dallas. What I found left me completely shocked: Dallas spends tens of millions of dollars holding thousands of innocent people simply because they are too poor to pay bail. Many of these people are accused of minor crimes—they are not dangerous and do not deserve to be in jail. When innocent people are locked away before their trial because they cannot pay for bail, their lives are destroyed: they lose their jobs, their housing, and may never be able to recover. I knew that I wanted to try and change things, but I was not sure where to start.
Fortunately, SMU gave me the opportunity to stand up and start to understand how to tackle the problem. In January 2017, SMU provided me the opportunity to fly to New York on a Richter Fellowship to study pretrial detention and bail reform in New York City. Going into my trip, I always intended to use the information I gained to encourage reform in Dallas, but being in New York ignited a passion for this area of criminal justice and reforming the problems endemic in Dallas’ pretrial detention system.
Pursuing independent research in New York was challenging, but faculty in the Statistical Sciences Department and the Embrey Human Rights Program were able to guide and support me through the process. They helped me obtain and analyze the data in New York and transition back home to replicating the research in Dallas. The network of mentors and colleagues in the Embrey Human Rights Program was a huge part of the success of the project and it was exciting to become a Community Outreach Fellow with the program. People like Dr. Brad Klein helped to shape the vision of the project and gave me a space to discuss challenges and strategies for overcoming them.
In January 2018, I founded the Community Bail Fund of North Texas, a nonprofit that pays bail for poor defendants unable to bail themselves out. This gives people a chance to fight for their innocence without being behind bars. Leading the bail fund has opened my eyes to the challenges of criminal justice reform, but has also deepened my commitment to the city of Dallas. In August, we bailed out more than 24 people in one of the largest single bailouts by any fund in the country. Not only was this a chance to kick-start our fund, but it was also a chance to see many groups committed to criminal justice reform collaborate together to end pretrial detention in Dallas.
The foundation of the bail fund is the community: meeting real needs by going to those being affected by injustice to understand both the problems and what solutions will be most effective. August was an amazing opportunity to see these groups come together and support the community by linking their efforts. Changing injustices and eliminating systemic inequality will not occur overnight, but I believe through the support that SMU has given me we can work with others towards seeing inequality eradicated in Dallas.