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Group paid bail of man now held in Pentagon case

Arkansan faces hearing today by Tom Sissom | February 27, 2020 at 3:46 a.m.

FAYETTEVILLE -- Matthew Richardson, who is facing charges in Arlington, Va., after police say he tried to blow up a car in a Pentagon parking lot, was released from the Washington County jail in December after The Bail Project posted his bond.

The Bail Project, a group working to help poor people avoid pretrial incarceration, has been working in Washington County since September, according to Madeline Porta, a client advocate with the group's Northwest Arkansas office.

"We provided free bail assistance to 19-year-old Matthew Richardson last year in a case of alleged theft," Porta wrote in an email Wednesday.

Richardson was arrested in Arkansas on Nov. 27 after, police said, he stole a 2018 Ford Explorer from the Washington Regional Medical Center parking lot, according to police and court records.

His case shows the need for additional mental health programs for many of the people who come into contact with the criminal justice system, Porta said.

"At the time we met him, the teen had been in jail for nearly a week because he could not afford the $2,500 bail," Porta said.

Porta said The Bail Project has provided free bail assistance to nearly 200 people in the jail. She said 90% of those released have appeared for their court dates. Nearly 80% of the group's clients have problems with drug abuse, and almost half describe mental health needs.

On Monday, Richardson, who is listed in police reports as a homeless resident of Fayetteville, was arrested when a Pentagon police officer said he saw Richardson striking a cigarette lighter to a piece of fabric that had been pushed into the gas tank of a 2016 Land Rover, according to a news release from the U.S. attorney's office for the Eastern District of Virginia. Richardson fled and was caught at the Arlington National Cemetery, adjacent to the Pentagon, according to the release. He told the officer that he was going to "blow this vehicle up" and "himself," the release said.

Richardson was charged Monday with maliciously attempting to damage and destroy by means of fire a vehicle used in affecting interstate and foreign commerce. If convicted, he faces a mandatory minimum of five years in prison and a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison, according to the U.S. attorney's news release.

He had an initial court appearance Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Alexandria, Va., and was ordered held for a hearing set for today.

The Land Rover is owned by an active-duty service member who didn't know Richardson, according to the release.

Washington County Sheriff Tim Helder said Wednesday that Richardson's actions after his release don't reflect on the work of The Bail Project.

"The Bail Project posting his bail is the same as if his grandpa came down and posted it," Helder said.

He added that he is concerned that the number of detainees being released because of chronic crowding at the jail makes such incidents more likely. The sheriff's office has been releasing more than 200 detainees a month above and beyond those who are helped by The Bail Project.

Helder said Richardson wouldn't have met the criteria for admission to the Crisis Stabilization Unit, which works to divert people with mental health or substance abuse problems away from the criminal justice system.

"The CSU is for people who haven't been arrested," Helder said.

Prosecuting Attorney Matt Durrett said he understands that people may be concerned by Richardson's actions after his release from jail, but he doesn't think the one incident should be used to hamper the work of The Bail Project.

"It's unfortunate, but I don't think it reflects on them," Durrett said Wednesday. "I don't know to what extent anyone could have known this person was going to do what he has been accused of doing."

Durrett said Richardson's bail was set by a judge, and was in keeping with normal standards and procedures. He could have been released through more "traditional" means, by a bail bondsman or family members, Durrett said, with the same outcome.

Stan Adelman, a Fayetteville lawyer and law professor, was hired as a jail ombudsman by the county to reduce crowding by identifying detainees who might be likely candidates for release on lower bail or no bail. Adelman said Wednesday that releasing any detainee is a "risk management" process.

He said he had heard of Richardson through his work as a volunteer at the 7 Hills Homeless Center in Fayetteville, but wasn't familiar with his criminal case. Adelman said it's important to not let one poor outcome color the effort to reduce pretrial incarceration.

"No. 1, there's no risk-free method when it comes to pretrial detainees and the decision to release them," he said. "The same kind of thing could have happened if this gentleman had the money and put up his own bond. Our focus is on whether people should be released. The Bail Project's appearance rate is pretty favorable compared to the traditional means. I wouldn't want people jumping on any bandwagons or jumping to any conclusions because of this incident."

The 710-bed jail is at its operating capacity when the number of detainees is between 80% and 90%. That's because of legal requirements regarding segregation of certain detainees. The jail has reported daily population counts in excess of 800 in recent months.

Metro on 02/27/2020

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