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They don't have $250 to get out of jail. So a faith group raised it for them, in time for Father's Day

TAMPA — Alexander Collins was walking a bicycle June 1 near the University of South Florida when police stopped him. He was told he matched the description of a car burglar.

When they ran his name, they found the 23-year-old homeless man had previously been told to stay away from the campus. He was arrested on a trespassing charge.

Collins grew up in foster care and says he has no family who could help him pay the $250 bail he needed to get out of jail. So he sat for 13 days in a two-man cell, reading Bible stories and watching TV as he awaited a court date June 20.

Then, on Thursday afternoon, a group of strangers got him out.

Wearing a sweat-soaked T-shirt, torn jean shorts and flip-flops, Collins strolled out the doors of the Orient Road Jail just before 4 p.m. He was greeted with water and snacks by volunteers with Faith in Florida, a coalition of religious groups that paid $750 for the release of three men sitting in jail on minor charges.

The "Father's Day Bailout" is part of an effort to call attention to the issue of bail reform and the plight of people who get stuck in jail awaiting trial because they can't afford to pay for their release.

"Their specific stories kind of cut to the heart of what's wrong with cash bail," said Bernice Lauredan, one of the group's organizers. "It allows us to put a face to the issue of mass incarceration."

Early this week, the group worked with an attorney to identify men jailed on non-violent misdemeanor charges who had spent lengthy periods locked up. They set up meetings with Collins and two other men Thursday morning at the jail's video visitation center. None of the men knew they before then that would be bailed out.

Volunteers asked whether the men had family support, if they needed help with transportation, if they would agree to show up in court.

At 2 p.m., Lauredan walked into the Orient Road Jail lobby. She wore a shirt that read, "Love is our weapon." She approached a window marked Inmate Records. From a purse, she grabbed a wad of cash —the haul from donations the group had collected. She counted out $750 and passed it beneath the thick glass. She signed a stack of papers.

Collins walked out first. He was followed by Nicholas Thompson, who had spent 32 days locked up on a petty theft charge after he was accused of trying to steal a cell phone from Walmart.

Thompson's next court date was two weeks away. He, too, was being held on $250 bail that he could not afford.

"It just seemed so simple, so little," he said. "But it's so much when you're not able to do anything for yourself."

Thursday was his 30th birthday.

Faith in Florida greeted Thompson with a plastic shopping bag that bore the words "Happy Father's Day." It held some snacks, a hygiene kit, a phone charger, and a bus pass. He has a 4-year-old daughter, he said. He hopes to be able to see her this Father's Day weekend, along with his sister, who happened to be flying in from out of town.

His mother embraced him outside the jail doors, tears in her eyes.

"God couldn't have lined it up any better," he said.

Both men said they wanted to go back to work. Before his arrest, Collins made money cooking and cleaning as a temporary laborer. Thompson did janitorial work. Both worried that their stints in jail may have cost them their jobs.

And both questioned the wisdom of keeping people like them locked up with others accused of more serious crimes, a sentiment the volunteers echoed.

"We're saving taxpayer money by bailing them out," said Stephen Feldman, a member of Congregation Beth Shalom in Tampa, one of several religious groups participating in the event. "It costs money to keep them in jail."

The issue of cash bail has become a topic of interest nationwide amid the broader discussion of criminal justice reform. Advocates argue that impoverished defendants are likely to be trapped in jail, even though they haven't been found guilty, until their cases are resolved.

Some jurisdictions have walked back the use of cash bail in favor of risk-based assessment systems. Some have eliminated bail for misdemeanor offenses.

But the issue hasn't gained much traction in Florida.

READ MORE: Hillsborough prosecutor joins Texas fight against cash bail. But what about Florida?

Hillsborough State Attorney Andrew Warren has expressed support for bail reform. But at the same time, he has said it is a complicated issue and that major changes will have to come from lawmakers.

Faith in Florida says it wants to work with local leaders to make that happen. Members say they'll keep bailing people out when they can.

The group also pledged to help Collins find shelter and to help ensure that the three men they freed attend their court hearings.

Organizers were still there late Thursday night when the third man — held for 26 days on a charge of driving without a license — also walked out.

"We hope we don't have to do this anymore, at some point," said Nanci Palacios, another organizer. "But in the meantime, there are so many people who sit in jail for so long."

Contact Dan Sullivan at dsullivan@tampabay.com. Follow @TimesDan.

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