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The Minnesota Freedom Fund, which bails low-income people out of jail or immigration detention, used to run on a shoestring budget.
"We were always in need of more money," says board member Mirella Ceja-Orozco, " constantly writing grant proposals ... to kind of figure out how we could obtain money to last us for the next few months."
In 2018, the last year it filed its taxes, the group had about $150,000. It had to turn down a lot of requests for assistance because of a lack of funds.
But in the past few weeks, the group received $31 million from more than 900,000 individual donations.
"It's just completely changed our world," says Ceja-Orozco.
In most jurisdictions, someone charged with a crime — someone presumed innocent until proven guilty — can put up a refundable bond to leave jail until their court date. That means people who have thousands of dollars, or can afford to borrow it, walk free, while those who can't afford it stay in jail.
Nearly half a million people at any given time are in jail awaiting trial. Low-income defendants might spend weeks or months behind bars, while richer defendants return to their jobs and families. Or they might plead guilty to a crime they didn't commit because they can't afford to wait in jail until their court date. The system disproportionately hurts people of color.
Bail funds pay to spring those low-income defendants from jail. And funds across the country saw an influx in funds, prompted by calls to action on social media, as people sought to support the activists taking to the street to protest the killing of George Floyd.
And because of the way bail funds work, the dollars being donated now could have a transformative impact for years to come.
The Minnesota Freedom Fund's surge in donations has attracted the most attention — and controversy. It's already been criticized for not spending the money faster, despite the tremendous difference in scale between its normal operating budget and the new donations.
Ceja-Orozco notes that the group, which did not solicit these funds, temporarily stopped accepting donations so it could figure out how it would spend the money. It will be scaling up operations, which involves hiring more staff and potentially partnering with other groups, she says.
But other bail funds across the country have felt the boost too — from tiny ad-hoc efforts to large nonprofits like the Bail Project, which operates in 21 locations across the country and received $5 million in recent donations.
In New Orleans, the Safety and Freedom Fund received $200,000 in ten days. That's about how much it had previously managed to raise in its three years of existence, says fund director Montrell Carmouche.
"Now it feels like the work isn't in vain," Carmouche says. "It feels like a movement. It feels like things are changing."
This is a fortuitous moment for an infusion of cash. Many bail funds had been pushing to get as many people as possible released because of the risk of the coronavirus in crowded jails.
And while the scale of these donations might look enormous, Pilar Weiss, the director of the National Bail Fund Network, says the need is acute too.
"You can spend tens of millions of dollars in bail, unfortunately, very quickly," she says."
But the true impact of this surge in donations might be felt long into the future.
Bail funds are "revolving funds" — a bond is returned to the person or group that posted it when the defendant appears in court, as the vast majority do. It's not a perfect closed loop; there are fees and forfeited bonds to account for. But most of the money that goes out the door comes back, and can be used to free another person.
That means the same money that bails out a protester this month could bail out someone else, arrested for another reason, months or even years from now.
Vita McClebb was recently bailed out by the New Orleans Safety and Freedom Fund after spending months in jail. She was arrested on charges of armed robbery, and says she's innocent.
McClebb says jail was "horrible," particularly as a trans woman. Life improved after she was transferred to a mental health tier, but then the coronavirus pandemic struck, and McClebb, who is immunocompromised, feared for her life.
A judge reduced her bail from $50,000 to $5,000, but it was still out of reach for her family, especially during this economic crisis.
"If there wasn't a bail fund, there was no way," she says. "There's nobody to lean on to help."
For years, bail funds have been there for people like McClebb to lean on. And the new donations could keep providing a boost for years to come.
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