Protest Arrests Led To Surge Of Bail Fund Donations: Impact Could Be Long Lasting

Jun 23, 2020
Originally published on June 30, 2020 4:39 pm

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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To another story now - tens of millions of dollars that have been donated to bail funds over the last month to support Black Lives Matter protesters who've been arrested. Bail funds pay to get people out of jail - people not convicted of a crime who can't afford to post their own bond. NPR's Camila Domonoske reports these donations could have a lasting effect for years to come.

CAMILA DOMONOSKE, BYLINE: The Minnesota Freedom Fund bails people out of jail or immigration detention. A long, long time ago - you know, back in May - it was a little-known nonprofit on a shoestring budget. Here's board member Mirella Ceja-Orozco.

MIRELLA CEJA-OROZCO: We were always in need of more money and so constantly writing grant proposals to kind of figure out how we could obtain money to last us for the next few months.

DOMONOSKE: In 2018, the group had about $150,000 total. This spring, thanks to social media, it received more than $31 million in just a few weeks.

CEJA-OROZCO: So, like, it's just completely changed our world.

DOMONOSKE: The Minnesota Freedom Fund actually stopped accepting money for a while so it could figure out how to scale up its efforts. It's hiring more staff. The organization has been criticized for not figuring it out faster. Ceja-Orozco says there's a lot of work to do and very little time. And these Internet-fueled donations to bail funds aren't just flooding in to one group. Bail funds across the country, big and small, are feeling a boost.

MONTRELL CARMOUCHE: Now it feels like the work isn't in vain.

DOMONOSKE: Montrell Carmouche is the director of the Safety and Freedom Fund in New Orleans. It received $200,000 in 10 days. That's as much as it had managed to raise in its three years of existence.

CARMOUCHE: It feels like a movement. It feels like things are changing.

DOMONOSKE: Here's how bail funds work. When a person is arrested and charged with a crime, it might be weeks or months before their day in court. Until then, they are presumed innocent. But say their bail is set at $5,000. If they have that much money or can borrow that much money, they'll be set free until their court date. If they don't have the money...

CARMOUCHE: People are simply just sitting in jail because they can't afford to pay.

DOMONOSKE: A few states have abolished the system, but most still use it. Almost half a million people nationally are in jail waiting for trial. This obviously hurts low-income people. And in practice, it particularly hurts people of color. But bail funds crowdsource the resources to build a general pool of money, then put up bail for people who can't afford it. And that money isn't paid to the court forever. It's a guarantee that the defendant will show up to court, which the vast majority do.

CARMOUCHE: Once the person goes back to court, we pay the cash bail. We get all the money back, with the exception of the fees associated with the bailout. Then we're able to support more people and more people, and then the cycle continues.

DOMONOSKE: So the same money that bails out a protester now could bail out people arrested for any reason next year and the year after that - people like Vita McClebb, who was recently bailed out by Carmouche's fund after months in jail. McClebb faces charges of armed robbery and says she's innocent.

VITA MCCLEBB: Just because a person is arrested, don't always think that they're guilty of it.

DOMONOSKE: As a transgender woman, she has one word for what jail was like.

MCCLEBB: Horrible.

DOMONOSKE: Then came the pandemic. And McClebb, who has a compromised immune system, worried for her life. The court lowered her bond to $5,000, but McClebb says there's no way her family could've pulled that together.

MCCLEBB: No, indeed. No. If there wasn't a bail fund, there was no way because there is nobody to lean on for help.

DOMONOSKE: Bail funds exist for people like McClebb to lean on, and these new donations could give them a boost for years, although that's not really what bail funds want. Organizers say they're going to spend some of that new cash trying to make themselves obsolete by pushing for fundamental changes to the justice system.

Camila Domonoske, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.