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Minnesota Freedom Fund launches new arm to lobby for ending cash bail — and the fund itself


Minnesota Freedom Fund launches new arm to lobby for ending cash bail — and the fund itself

Feb 08, 2023 | 9:30 am ET
By Deena Winter
Minnesota Freedom Fund launches new arm to lobby for ending cash bail — and the fund itself
The Minnesota Freedom Fund bailed out people who were arrested during protests of George Floyd's police killing in 2020. Photo by Max Nesterak/Minnesota Reformer.

The Minnesota Freedom Fund was overwhelmed with over $30 million in donations after the police murder of George Floyd, using the money to bail out of jail over 2,000 people in their effort to end a system in which only people without money have to sit in jail awaiting trial, often at the expense of jobs, housing and family support. 

Now the group is launching a political organization to push for an end to the cash bail system.

If they succeed in ending cash bail and immigration detention bonds, they say, that would spell the end of the Freedom Fund itself. 

Their new arm, the Minnesota Freedom Fund Action (MFF Action), is a 501(c)4 political advocacy organization, which means it can lobby lawmakers to change state law so people aren’t jailed before they’re found guilty just because they don’t have enough money to make bail. They also support bills requiring counties to annually report inmate data by race, and bail money to be returned to the person or group that paid it.

“We look forward to MFF Action putting the Minnesota Freedom Fund out of business, but make no mistake: The Minnesota Freedom Fund will only close our doors when the cash bail system and the harms of immigration detention have been eliminated,” said Co-Executive Director Elizer Darris. 

Instead of bail, some other states use electronic monitoring or other forms of surveillance or confinement, which the Freedom Fund strongly opposes. 

The launch of MFF Action comes amid threats to bail funds across the nation, from hostile legislators and lawsuits that have led to some shuttering. The new political arm will work to protect bail funds, which have been under attack for bailing out people charged with violent crimes or who sometimes go on to commit more crimes.

The Freedom Fund was excoriated for posting $350,000 bail for Christopher Boswell, a twice-convicted rapist who was charged with sexual assault and kidnapping. Darris has said the group would not post his bail today.

“We are a community-based bail fund, and any harm that happens within our community deeply pains us,” Darris said. “We live right here. I mean, in order for me to go to work, for instance, I drive through George Floyd Square every single day.”

Another man they bailed out for $2,000, Shawn Michael Tillman, was charged with second-degree murder three weeks later.

Darris said if someone they bail out goes on to commit a crime, they look at what they could do better and adjust policies, but they’re not able to control the decisions people make any more than a judge who sets bail can.

The Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution says plainly: “Excessive bail shall not be required.” 

A California bail reform group — backed by celebrities including John Legend, Danny Glover and Richard Branson — shut down its Las Vegas chapter after it posted bond for a burglary suspect and six days later he allegedly shot a restaurant worker during a robbery, according to the Las Vegas Review-Journal.

The shooting victim sued the national nonprofit bail fund that posted the suspect’s bail, and the chapter closed shortly afterward. Local police advocates and national conservative pundits have suggested that a similar lawsuit be filed against the Freedom Fund. 

Minnesota Republicans have introduced two bills in the past two years that are aimed at the Freedom Fund. One would have made public the name of a third party that posts bail, and another, the Bail Abatement and Nonprofit Exclusion Act (or BANE Act), would have made it illegal for a nonprofit to run a bail fund in Minnesota. Last year, the provision was nearly tacked onto a large public safety bill as an amendment during floor debate. The bill has been reintroduced this year, but isn’t expected to go anywhere in a Legislature now controlled by the DFL.

Although the Freedom Fund leaders say they won’t close their doors until they meet their goals of ending cash bail and immigration detention reform, the organization has made significant changes in response to scrutiny during the past three years.

The bail fund was established in 2016 by a University of Minnesota grad student, Simon Cecil, and due to its meager resources — it brought in about $110,000 in 2018 — initially focused on bails of up to $1,000. 

But after Floyd’s murder and the avalanche of nearly a million donations — spurred on by celebrities like Seth Rogen, Steve Carrell and Kamala Harris — the Freedom Fund was criticized by supporters and smaller donors for moving too slowly in bailing out protesters. But even as the influx of cash arrived, the organization had just one staffer and was mostly run by volunteers.

“It led to questions… about what was happening with that money,” said spokesperson Noble Frank. “(The windfall) is a blessing and it definitely comes with its share of pitfalls.”

In the ensuing years, the Freedom Fund has been harangued — largely by Republicans — for not being careful about who it bailed out of jail.

Former interim Executive Director Greg Lewin infamously said in 2020 that often he didn’t even look at the crime committed by those he bailed out.

“I think there was pushback from the community in asking this organization that’s resourced to the level that we are to take a different kind of care,” Frank said.

The organization was rocked by turmoil and turnover in the summer of 2020, and two new co-executive directors, Mirella Ceja-Orozco and Darris, began in early 2021 — around the same time the founder left the organization.

The new leaders began more closely reviewing each request for bail, considering the charges in addition to other factors, like whether the person would lose housing or a job or had medical needs.

“We take to heart what we recognize as and perceive as good-faith criticism from the people who live in our community — people who may be directly impacted by the decisions we make,” Frank said.

They also established a post-release department to support the people they bail out with things like housing and psychological or chemical dependency help.

“There’s not a bail bonds company in the nation that gives the level of support to its clients that we do,” Darris said.

The group is also implementing a cap on bails, but won’t say publicly what the cap is so that judges don’t purposely set bails higher. The average bail they paid in 2021 was $9,500, but was “significantly higher” in 2020, Frank said.

“You will not see Freedom Fund paying $150,000, $200,000 bails today,” Frank said.

That means people like Jaleel Stallings might not get bailed out, however. Stallings was painted by police and prosecutors as a would-be cop killer, but later exonerated by a jury of eight charges. The Freedom Fund posted $75,000 to bail him out of jail even though he hadn’t yet had a chance to publicly tell his side of the story.

“We’re really proud of having paid for (Stallings),” Frank said.

The group spent about $24 million on bail and immigration bonds from 2020 to 2022, Frank said.

Since 2020, they’ve helped free over 2,000 people who, “but for the amount in their bank accounts would have been free to await trial from home,” Ceja-Orozco said.

“Without Minnesota Freedom Fund’s intervention, their inability to afford bail would have kept them in jail for months, losing their jobs, housing, education, health care and family support. All while never having been found guilty of a crime,” Ceja-Orozco said.

Darris said the Freedom Fund’s agenda is “on the march” at the Legislature, with bills eliminating cash bail for misdemeanors, restoring voting rights for people on parole or probation, giving driver’s licenses to undocumented people, legalizing marijuana and reforming misdemeanor sentences.

And yet, the group still faces threats — some literal. Since taking over the Freedom Fund, Darris said, he and Ceja-Orozco, staff and family members have gotten death threats, while battling a “relentless campaign of harassment and disinformation” on social media.

Darris said the midterm election demonstrated their opponents’ willingness to politicize, weaponize and misrepresent the Freedom Fund’s work for partisan purposes. 

Until now, he said, the opponents were able to count on “relative silence” from the charitable organization because its nonprofit status limited its ability to respond. The new group, MFF Action, won’t be so quiet.

MFF Action board chair Angela Myers said on any given day, about 7,000 people are in Minnesota jails — most of them Black or other people of color waiting for trials — and even a few days in jail will make them more likely to be involved in the criminal system again.

“If wealth-based jailing was the answer to public safety, the United States — one of only two countries in the world that continues to use a money bail system — would be the safest place on earth,” Myers said. “But the U.S. is not.”

Only the U.S. and the Philippines have a cash bail system that is dominated by commercial bail bondsmen, according to Politifact.