On a recent, unseasonably cool May afternoon, Lensa Odima-Warden and her three colleagues from The Bail Project -- a nonprofit organization that provides free bail assistance and pre-trial support to lower-income people -- stood underneath a gloomy canopy of clouds and released four biodegradable balloons to the sky. The simple act was a quiet way of remembering those clients of the Northwest Arkansas office who passed away over the last year.
There is strong evidence that the job Odima-Warden and her co-workers do has a big impact on both lower-income people struggling within the justice system and the system itself. The Bail Project's Instagram account is full of examples: To date, the organization has helped more than 16,000 people make bail, a boon to both clients and taxpayers, who spend approximately $38 million daily to hold people in jail while waiting for their trials. Of The Bail Project's clients that reach a final disposition, 92% aren't required to spend any additional time incarcerated, preventing more than 100,000 days of incarceration for those who can't afford bail. One post from March 2, celebrating a Day of Empathy, really packed a wallop: "More than 90% of the people sitting in jails and prisons are going to come home. What is their life going to look like, and how can we as a community accept and support them?"
But on this overcast day, Odima-Warden's mind wasn't on the success stories. She was focusing instead on those whose fights she was unable to finish.
"Throughout the year, we've lost a lot of clients, some of them because they were sick, others were tragic accidents," she says. "Others, we still haven't found out what happened to them. We wanted to let them know that they touched us. Part of them just kind of stays with you. Most of our clients are going through a crisis, and they feel like they are not understood or that nobody loves them. Or maybe they've experienced different traumas growing up. We just wanted them to know that they're not forgotten. Even if they're gone, they will be remembered."
The empathy expressed in Odima-Warden's words has been present since her childhood and is clearly demonstrated by her resume: She has volunteered for Legal Aid of Arkansas and worked for Peace at Home Family Shelter and the Arkansas Department of Human Services. She has also helped train judges on issues related to domestic violence.
And now she's dedicating her skills to helping her clients fight during what, for many, is the most traumatic time in their lives.
"Lensa brings a passion and compassion to the work," says Madeline Porta, The Bail Project's operations manager. "She cares deeply about our clients, and she'll take extra time to really listen to people -- and, a lot of times, that's what people need, just to be heard. Sometimes, in the legal system, we have to be creative to come up with solutions to issues that folks might have. She's willing to think outside of the box in order to advocate for her clients."
"Getting a call from Lensa at 8 p.m., concerned about housing for a client or brainstorming on treatment services for an individual that is struggling with sobriety, is not uncommon," says Sarah Moore, who works with the Arkansas Justice Reform Coalition (AJRC) and who has known Odima-Warren since their college days. "Additionally, this work can be heavy -- to hear the trauma that individuals have gone through or are facing -- and Lensa is able to stay upbeat and positive to look for solutions."
"Lensa is a worrier, and I mean that in a charitable way," says husband Lee Warden. "She is always thinking about the people she is helping. She will go to bed at night, still worrying about someone who is in a particularly hard circumstance or who is suffering. She takes calls and provides services at all hours of the night. Some of her clients call so much our kids know them by name. But Lensa is always willing to help because she cares about the people."
Kenya to Houston
Odima-Warden was born in Gwasi, a remote village located in Kenya. Though she moved to Houston when she was only 9, she still has clear, strong and happy memories of her childhood.
"It is a wonderful, natural and untouched part of the world," she writes in a post-interview email. "If you ever experience a rainstorm in my village, it will be forever etched in your mind. We have cotton soil that soaks up the rain and emits this glorious smell. The evenings come quickly and everywhere is enveloped in darkness -- most people still use solar lights or kerosene lanterns. Whether you live high in the hills, at the foothills or near the lake, the night brings a cold breeze. The benefit of living in Gwassi is that the food is fresh as most of it is harvested and cooked the same day. We speak Dholuo, and there are even variations of Dholuo -- my grandmother spoke a variation that is slowly fading with each generation. When everything is chaotic, I close my eyes and think of the narrow and worn path by my homestead that went up the hill all the way to my grandmother's home, and I smile."
Still, Odima-Warden is all too aware of injustices that persist in her homeland and, she says, hopes to one day be part of the fight against those injustices.
"I want kids to not be beaten at school by teachers because their parents can't afford uniforms," she says. "I want every kid to have a desk. I want all the schools, primary and secondary, to have a library where the students can read all the books to their heart's content. I want the infirmary to have beds for patients, especially the maternity ward. My dream is to one day bring running water, electricity and a paved road to each homestead."
Odima-Warden's mother was the first in her family of five to leave the village and, as a woman, was unable to bring her children -- Odima-Warden and her two siblings -- to the United States with her. Instead, Odima-Warden's father brought them later, traveling with them on their first-ever airplane trip, landing a world away.
"We landed in Chicago in a crazy blizzard," she remembers. "We were coming from a tropical climate, so we had no jackets. I just remember being ushered off the plane, thinking, 'This is going to be miserable!' I remember them giving us blankets and saying, 'Go! Go! Go!' At 9 years old, I had never seen snow."
She knew no English and, through some grave mistake in evaluation when she first entered the public school system in Houston, she was not put in the program for children for whom English was a second language.
"If people lined up, I would just go and line up," she recalls. "They were talking to me, but for me, it was like in the Charlie Brown cartoons: 'Wah wah wah, wah wah.' But that summer, I watched 'Alvin and the Chipmunks', and I would imitate what they would say.
"It worked out. But it was a little painful."
Despite the rough entry into the school system, Odima-Warden proved to be an excellent student. She was a junior and in her high school gymnasium for a college fair when she felt herself being drawn toward a certain table.
"I saw this big red animal, an inflatable, and I was like, 'What is that?'" she remembers. "'Oh, the Arkansas Razorbacks? That sounds interesting.'"
Her high G.P.A meant she was eligible for a scholarship, and she accepted the offer from the UA sight unseen. With the help of her family, she moved to Fayetteville that summer.
"I said I was going to graduate and then go back to Texas, and I never did," she says. "I started working for the Walmart office, I met a boy in law school, and I've stayed here ever since."
Engineering to law
Yes, law school, but first: the college of engineering. That's where Odima-Warden started, following in the footsteps of her siblings, one of whom ended up in chemical engineering, the other in electrical engineering. She lasted three-and-a-half years in the program.
"Coming from an immigrant family, you have to either be a lawyer, doctor or engineer -- there's really nothing else, right?" she jokes. "It was torture, because I'm a fine arts person. When I was going to lose my last scholarship, I just thought, 'Let me jump ship.' And I went to political science, criminal justice and Spanish. And I kind of found my home. I thought, 'This is what I've been missing.'"
"Lensa was warm and kind," says Moore. "Everyone was goofy and silly at those ages of early adulthood as we would gather as a living community and play games, chat and eat together. That same playful energy is in Lensa today and lights up her eyes when you speak with her all these years later."
Feeling the pressure to find a job immediately after graduation, Odima-Warden took a job as an internal auditor for Walmart -- an especially ironic choice, she says, since it was math that was her particular nemesis in the engineering program. The high pressure job left her feeling constantly stressed as she waited, "on pins and needles," to find out if her audit was correct.
"If you're an accounting major, or you're in finance, you thrive on that, because when the books tie, and they tell you everything is good, then you say, 'Yes! I'm the best internal auditor,'" she says, laughing. "But when you're a fine arts person, you're like, 'Look. Could I have missed a comma?'"
Next up for Odima-Warden: law school, where she met her husband, Lee, who says he was drawn to her the first day he saw her.
"Beyond being beautiful -- which I noticed the first day of law school -- she was vibrant and made any room she walked into brighter," Lee says when asked what made him first notice his wife. "She was kind to everyone in the law school. I met some great people through her willingness to engage with everyone, who I probably never would have made an effort to get to know if not for Lensa. She seemed extroverted, but fairly early on I realized she was somewhat of a reluctant extrovert, which was good because I have a hard time comprehending the pure extroverts among us. She was funny and quick-witted. As I got to know her better, I saw that she has a big heart; so much so that I couldn't predict which movies would stir her emotions (she was very affected by 'Elf'). All of this and so much more made her easy to love."
Law school was a good fit for Odima-Warden, she says, but her passion was truly ignited when she started volunteering at the legal aid office.
"That's when I started seeing the inequality that goes on within our criminal justice system. I started realizing that there are other people who are living day to day, who are not able to afford most things, and they're underrepresented. They can't get the help they need. I was seeing people who are getting evicted. Seeing people who need an order of protection but who just couldn't navigate the actual court system, which is supposed to be for everyone. And it just gave me a heart for my community."
The experience guided her job search post-graduation, and she landed at Peace at Home Family Shelter.
"I went into it thinking that we would probably be getting maybe one or two calls a week for help," she says. "And instead it was almost every day on the hotline -- individuals who are being abused. Calls about domestic violence or children who are being abused or just people in circumstances where they have lost everything. You give them 45 days of shelter, and then they're supposed to go back out there and somehow navigate the world."
The Bail Project
That experience "fueled" her, she says. She took what she had learned about domestic issues to a new position at the Administrative Office of the Courts, where she "worked with the Arkansas Supreme Court to help shape domestic violence laws in Arkansas, to teach judges and train them on laws that pertain to domestic violence, sexual assault and human trafficking. Because a lot of what we were seeing was just being dealt with on a local level. If somebody beat up their wife, especially in the rural areas, [the system was] seeing it more as a family issue versus a legal issue."
When Odima-Warden's husband accepted a prosecutor job in El Dorado, the couple moved and then started their family. Odima-Warden decided to stay home for a bit with the kids, but when Lee got a job in the public defender's office for Benton County, they returned to Northwest Arkansas. Odima-Warden went to work for the foster care system within the Arkansas Department of Human Services.
"It was a tough job," she admits. "I definitely tip my hat to those individuals who work for DHS, because the hours are long, and the experience of having to go to the houses and do the walk-through and deal with either removal of children or placement of children in difficult situations is a tough job."
She had done that for about a year when she heard about The Bail Project, a chapter of which was brought to Northwest Arkansas by former Benton County Circuit Court Judge Jon Comstock and Porta.
"When I started researching [The Bail Project], I just kind of went down this rabbit hole where I thought, 'Wow, this is awesome,'" she says. "Being a criminal justice major and a political science major, you see the ideal part of it. They teach you the textbook [version] of what the criminal justice system is supposed to be like. But living in the real world, we have people who are actually experiencing it. And it works for some people, and, sometimes, it doesn't work for other people. And most of my clients that I dealt with either at Peace at Home or the individuals that we were either removing children from or placing children in their home, most of them had had some kind of encounter with the criminal justice system. It was so interesting to peel that back that onion and be able to see how it affects everybody."
What she discovered was that the current bail system -- and a detainee's ability to afford it -- has a significant impact on the eventual results of the case. Research shows that the assignment of bail results in increased likelihood of conviction, as well as a rise in recidivism. Defendants who are detained for the entire pretrial period are over five times more likely to be sentenced to jail and nearly four times more likely to be sentenced to prison. There's also the enormously negative impact pretrial detention has on a detainee's work and family life.
"Most of my clients are sitting there, and they've either lost or they will lose their apartments, because it takes about 30 days on average to go to court -- only for it, often, to be pushed back, especially with a pandemic," Odima-Warden explains. "If you were stopped at a traffic stop, and your car got impounded, that's 30 days' worth of impound fees. And sometimes it's better to just leave the car and not pay for it because you don't have the money. We have clients who either were starting jobs or were actually working, and because they have had to sit there, they lose their job, only for the case to be dismissed."
And, as Odima-Warden points out, "pretrial detention" means the person sitting in jail has not yet been convicted of a crime.
"The bail system was never meant really as a punishment," she says. "It was meant as a way to make people come back [to court]. So it's been a joy to help people navigate and work with the community partners to help people get housed, to help people get food."
Odima-Warden uses her legal skills for her current position, but it goes far beyond that.
"The Bail Project doesn't stop at getting them out of custody," says Comstock, the former Benton County Circuit Court Judge who, with Porta, was instrumental in bringing the organization to Northwest Arkansas. "We try to hook them up with services. The Bail Project helps get people transportation to and from court. We're constantly notifying them of their court dates, so they don't miss them."
The goal of The Bail Project is to "end cash bail and motivate broad adoption of community release with support," according to their organization's literature. Odima-Warden has clients who are jailed for infractions as small as having drug paraphernalia on their person or for missing a supervision fee once out on parole. Both she and Porta say The Bail Project is making progress in educating people about the inequities and harsh reality of the current system.
"We just ran a bill in this last [legislative] session that was sponsored by Rep. Jay Richardson, attempting to end cash bail for most misdemeanor offenses," notes Porta. "That did not make it through. But we got a lot of conversations going with lawmakers and got the opportunity to have some of our clients go to Little Rock and testify about their experience being held on bail. I think we're making progress. I think that, ultimately, we're trying to work ourselves out of a job.
"[Odima-Warden] talks to judges, she talks to prosecutors, public defenders, service partners and community partners in the area who provide direct social services where we can refer our clients. All of these are relationships that she is constantly building in her work."
"She does a great job of giving people hope," says Warden. "Moreover, it is rational hope. She does a great job of calming people down and fixing them on the next logical decision to make. When dealing with people in crisis, this capacity is invaluable."
For Odima-Warden, those balloons she released in May for her lost clients symbolized a promise she feels obligated to keep.
"It was just a good way to honor their memories and let them know that they are still with us," she remembers of the small ceremony. "And to say that we will work and strive to have cash bail eliminated."
Bringing the Bail Project to Northwest Arkansas
Jon Comstock was already active in the fight for bail reform in Arkansas when he watched a Ted Talk given by Robin Steinberg, the founder of The Bail Project, in 2018. Comstock, who served as a Benton County Circuit Court judge on the felony docket for a year and a half, was distressed by the inequities he saw playing out in his own courtroom.
“My courtroom would fill up with defendants and their attorneys, and, in the first three rows of the jury box, you would have people in shackles,” he recalls. “And I used to wonder, ‘What’s the difference between this group of people that are all chained up and the ones who posted bail and are showing up with their attorney?’ What really struck me was — if someone had a $3,000 bail, they only needed to come up with $300. But people who are poor don’t have $300. And our system seemed to say that everybody in that courtroom needed that person to be shackled up for their safety, yet if they could reach into their billfold and slam three $100 bills on the table, all of a sudden, the chains could come off, and you and I could feel safe again. That’s ludicrous, that the ability to pay money makes a difference with whether we have to lock someone up pretrial or whether we don’t.”
Comstock joined with a group called DecARcerate to send a request to the Arkansas Supreme Court to consider taking on pretrial detention reform. He especially encouraged the Court to take a closer look at Rule 9.2(a), which states that “the judicial officer shall set money bail only after he determines that no other conditions will reasonably ensure the appearance of the defendant in court.” Comstock and DecArcerate say that rule is largely ignored, and the bail system is the default in Arkansas courts, to the great detriment of lower-income defendants. When he saw Steinberg’s “What if we ended the injustice of bail” presentation, he knew he had to track Steinberg down and talk to her about bringing her organization to the region. Comstock traveled to Tulsa to meet Steinberg at a function and, later, joined forces with Madeline Porta, who now serves as The Bail Project’s operations director.
Today, Comstock stays involved with the organization by occasionally taking on pro bono cases of those bailed out by the nonprofit.
“We know that the outcomes are better [for those whose bail is paid],” he says. “The person that’s out of custody at five months, they’ve gotten a job, they have a letter from an employer say what a great worker they are. They’ve got a professor at NWACC saying that they completed a three-hour course. In other words, they are able to build this positive record. And I get to share all that with the prosecutor, and I can negotiate better with that prosecutor because I’m representing a healthy human being, who is not a threat to us. Whereas, if the only thing the prosecutor sees is a person in shackles five months later, they have no track record to be able to show.”
Madeline Porta says that, since 2019, The Bail Project in Northwest Arkansas has provided free bail assistance for 324 people, and its clients have appeared at approximately 90% of their court appearances. She also points out that a donation to The Bail Project earmarked to go straight to bail assistance is money that, potentially, can help multiple clients of the organization.
“When you give a dollar, we end up being able to recycle that dollar over and over across multiple folks, because the vast majority of our clients do show up for court and comply with their court-ordered obligations,” she says. “And at the end of their cases, the money gets returned back to us — so it just cycles back again and again.”
— Lara Jo Hightower