See more of the story

Maplewood police arrested the same suspect four times in four weeks this fall on suspicion of stealing cars and burglarizing an auto dealership. In three of those cases, Ramsey County judges granted the defendant a no-bail conditional release — and twice he was back behind bars within days, accused of new crimes.

It's a cautionary tale, said Maplewood Police Chief Scott Nadeau, as debate about reforming the cash bail system moves to the forefront in Minnesota.

"We can't forget that there are some circumstances under which people being released without bail are going to continue to victimize other people," Nadeau said. "We need to ensure we are having a discussion that balances equity with protecting the public."

Momentum to reform the cash bail system has picked up speed nationally. Bail is intended as a guarantee that a defendant will return for trial, but critics say it's a system that keeps the poor locked up pre-conviction and disproportionately affects communities of color.

State lawmakers have drafted legislation to reduce the use of cash bail, and Ramsey County has taken the lead in working with national and local nonprofits — including the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) — to examine cash bail alternatives.

Elizer Darris, an organizer for the ACLU of Minnesota's Smart Justice campaign, said the current bail system doesn't improve public safety. "There are plenty of studies that show there is not a causal relationship between bail and someone committing new crimes," he said. "Someone can get out on a murder charge if they have enough money."

Darris said the ACLU is prepared for pushback from law enforcement officials, but Nadeau said they need to be part of the cash bail debate. And cases like that of Chi Nu Xiong, he said, illustrate why.

Conditions for bail

According to court files, police caught Xiong, 22, of St. Paul, behind the wheel of a stolen Mercedes-Benz on Sept. 5. Five days later he was caught driving a stolen Toyota Camry. On Sept. 11, Ramsey County District Judge Gary Bastian authorized Xiong's conditional release without bail.

Two weeks later, police caught Xiong behind the wheel of a stolen Honda CRV. District Judge Joy Bartscher set aside the prosecutor's request for $10,000 bail and ordered the defendant to pay $500 for his release pending trial, and Xiong again left jail.

On Oct. 4, officers responding to an early morning alarm arrested Xiong for allegedly breaking into an Audi dealership in Maplewood. This time, prosecutors sought $20,000 bail. But District Judge Sophia Vuelo ordered Xiong conditionally released without bail.

Xiong is currently out and awaiting trial in all four cases. His public defender, Christian Ruud, said judges reviewed all the cases and set the conditions for release. But such cases lead to frustration among police officers and investigators, Nadeau said.

"They continue to see this person going out and victimizing others," Nadeau said. "He is back on the street in very short order doing it again."

Nadeau said that while the alleged auto theft was a property crime and not violent, it could lead to dangerous situations such as police chases.

Darris said he didn't know the details of Xiong's case but called it an outlier, saying the cash bail system costs people jobs and freedom, often on suspicion of minor offenses. In some cases, the inability to post bail causes defendants to plead guilty just to speed up their release.

"Do we want to create a justice system predicated on whether you have the money and financial means to gain access to justice?" Darris said. "These are not convicted individuals. They deserve the right to have a fair shake at justice."

Ramsey County Chief District Judge Leonardo Castro said he couldn't comment on pending cases, but he said judges use a pretrial assessment tool when determining bail.

"It is an evidence-based and validated tool judges use to attempt to make fair and equitable decisions about bail and release," Castro said in an e-mail. Standards for release are generally based on the likelihood that a defendant would be a danger to the public and will return to court for further proceedings, he said.

Ramsey County Attorney John Choi said Xiong's case shows the cracks in the current cash bail system. His office sought bail in the interest of public safety, he said, but judges, who are elected, are well aware of the equity side of the debate over bail. They're also trying to limit the jail population to halt the spread of COVID, he said.

Choi said he supports statewide bail reform similar to that in New Jersey, where cash bail has been replaced with a public safety assessment tool. Prosecutors can ask a judge to keep a defendant in custody to protect the public or ensure that they will be in court.

"It's a more straightforward approach ... as opposed to doing this dance with the money," Choi said.