As thousands of people across the country took to the streets to protest police brutality in the wake of George Floyd’s death, many more thousands sought to help by making donations. Online opinion quickly coalesced around donating to community bail funds as a way to support the protestors: If they were arrested, then they could be promptly released from jail. For people looking to help in Minneapolis, the Minnesota Freedom Fund became a favorite recommendation. It ended up receiving more than $30 million in donations in just a few days, though at the beginning of May, its goal had been raising just $5,000 for the month. As the protests spread, groups like Brooklyn Community Bail Fund and Community Justice Exchange’s National Bail Fund Network also saw surges in donations.
As Minneapolis erupted in protests after Floyd’s death, donating to the MFF was framed as a way to provide immediate help, and the MFF itself said in the first few days that it was standing by to hear if protestors are stuck in jail on cash bail, and if so, it would help them. But the focus on the fund online was so powerful that, after raising $20 million in four days, the MFF began encouraging people to donate to other organizations instead (it then opened up to donations again with a new set of objectives how they could make systemic change). But once there is a simple solution spreading online, it can be hard to stem the tide of donations: When Americans’ attention was focused on immigrant children in cages, everyone suggested donated to RAICES. The nonprofit ended up with $20 million and had to deal with the growing pains of scaling a charity in record time.
So it was not surprising that three weeks after Floyd’s death, the MFF came under fire amid calls for transparency about where all that money went. People wanted proof that the organization was bailing people out, and said they knew protestors still sitting in jail, so why hadn’t they been helped? MFF took to Twitter with an update, announcing that they’ve paid “well over” $200,000 toward bailing people out, and are “working on doing more.” The backlash was swift: People pointed out what a small percentage of their overall donations that amount was and demanded to know where the rest of the millions of dollars went. (The attention also sparked an internal fight about the identity of the fund’s sole full-time employee.) But experts on bail and criminal justice reform say the MFF’s work so far is an accomplishment—and will help cement the role bail funds can play when it comes to making structural change in the criminal justice system.
Where are the receipts?
After the MFF disclosed how they’ve spent some of their money so far, and how they hope to expand their efforts beyond these protests in the future, some people actually demanded their donations back. “Post receipts or I want my money back,” one person responded on Twitter. “There shouldn’t be a single protestor in this country in need of bail or housing,” another replied. “The people have expectations of the funds donated. Let’s go.” Others demanded they spread that money to different organizations across the country. Some claimed they had been scammed.
Despite critics‘ claims that the fund should work harder to help those who have been recently arrested, protestors have been actually bailed out. “We are paying, and have paid, all protest bail that’s come our way,” the MMF said on Twitter in an explanation of its recent work and future goals (the MFF did not immediately respond to a request for comment). Pilar Maria Weiss, director of Community Justice Exchange, which started the National Bail Fund Network, put it a different way: “Hopefully people understand that just because Minnesota Freedom Fund received $31 million in donations, doesn’t mean that there has been $31 million in [protest] bail set to date,” she says.
If you donated to a bail fund to help these protests, you won’t get a receipt of who exactly your donation bailed out, because there are confidentiality issues around sharing the information of someone’s specific case. And not every protestor who is arrested has to pay bail: some are immediately released, some are given desk appearance tickets—which means they are not arraigned or incarcerated—and some people charged with more serious crimes are being held without bail. Weiss notes that these protests are also ongoing. There could be more protestor arrests that still require bail funds this weekend, or next week, and police are still investigating and arresting people who participated in protests weeks ago. And in some municipalities, bail funds also face restrictions about what they can pay: In New York, charitable bail funds can only pay bail that is less than $2,000.
“They just received these unanticipated donations about two weeks ago, they’re a volunteer-led organization, they’re going to figure out how to transparently and responsibly spend all of that money on bail because that’s what they do, but that might take more than two weeks,” says Weiss. “If an organization spent $31 million in two weeks and just kind of did it willy nilly, there’d be the reverse [critique]: ‘Oh my god, it wasn’t transparent, there wasn’t a plan.'” Weiss notes that these community bail funds are also 501(c)(3) organizations, meaning there are laws about what they can do and regulations requiring they share financial documents.
The slow-moving bail process
Paying bail also takes time. Small freedom funds typically post one or two bails a day, according to Columbia Law School associate professor Kellen Funk. “There aren’t scores of knowledgeable bail lawyers waiting around to be hired when a charity receives a sudden influx of funds, so a charity that has worked on one or two bail cases a day will not be able to rapidly scale up even in normal times, setting aside the additional complications of a pandemic,” he says in an email. “Posting bail is an intricate and arcane legal process—it takes me 14 weeks to explain it in class to an upper-year student.”
To Funk, the fact that a relatively young bail fund such as the Minnesota Freedom Foundation was even able to post $200,000 in bail in less than three weeks “is super impressive, even if it represents a small portion of the funds received.” He says that he expects the fund to scale up its good work with those newly acquired donations to do even more to help disadvantaged communities in Minneapolis in the future.
“It doesn’t make sense to publicly criticize a bail fund’s operation just weeks after making a donation,” says Jocelyn Simonson, an associate professor at Brooklyn Law School who studies bail funds specifically. “If it were a year later or even months later, I might see these questions as more of a genuine set of questions about what happened and accountability.” Some of the vitriol the fund received for not providing a 100% immediate “return on investment” for its $31 million in donations is probably in part the work of trolls, but also in part a misunderstanding of how long it takes to make structural change, and what a donation to a bail fund—and specifically a hyper-local nonprofit—entails.
To the critics who suggest Minnesota Freedom Fund redistribute its new millions to other organizations, experts note that’s hard to do legally. Nonprofits face strict red tape on what they can spend their money on and how quickly. For a small nonprofit staffed by volunteers, the infrastructure to actually handle so much money just isn’t there; it takes time to scale up.
While the protests might have been what inspired a surge of donations to bail funds, the money wasn’t earmarked for only protestors. There are thousands of other people in jail on other charges who are imprisoned only because they can’t afford their bail. It’s an issue that cuts across race and class. Rich people can afford to pay their bail, while poor people are jailed because they cannot. How high a judge sets someone’s bail is essentially a comment on how much of a threat to public safety the judge thinks that person is, and race has historically influenced bail amounts. Nationally, Black men pay 35% higher money bail amounts than white men for similar crimes.
Community bail funds counter those systemic racist tendencies that exist within policing, judges’ decisions, and the entire criminal justice system. “By paying bail for multiple people over an extended time, they make a larger statement about a community’s vision of freedom and safety that’s in contrast to the criminal system’s vision of freedom and safety, which says that safety is always on the side of incarcerating someone,” Simonson says. People have pooled their money to free their loved ones for as long as there has been the need to do so, she adds, but the relatively newer phenomenon of community bail funds, where people pool their money to free strangers, makes an even more powerful statement.
Bail funds also have larger goals than just paying bail for individuals over and over, says Simonson. “As much as bail funds respond to crisis—and they do, [because] someone being arrested is a crisis for that person and it’s a crisis for that family—they also play a long game,” she says. “That’s the power of bail funds.” The Minnesota Freedom Fund, for example, has been around for four years. Outside of a crisis situation such as nationwide protests against police brutality, bail funds play an important role in the effort for racial justice, and make a strong statement about a community’s commitment to that goal.
That means the way they spend their money might change over time, too. Some bail funds have expanded to do court watch work and write reports about prosecutor behavior; others join statewide coalitions to end bail. When New York passed a set of bail reforms that established new regulations for bail funds, Brooklyn Community Bail Fund initially decided to actually stop paying bail. The act of regulating bail funds, they said, made them a part of the carceral system; instead of ending cash bail, lawmakers only made these bail funds more necessary, which is counter to their ultimate goal. They’ve since opened up their donations again, and in light of the protests, said that they are “deploying funds received to pay demonstrators’ bail to other funds in New York City, New York State, and around the country where there is need.”
For many of the people who donated to a bail fund, it may have been one of the first steps they’ve taken to be a part of this larger fight against criminal injustice. Even within that fight—which activists have been taking part in for decades—the popularity of bail funds is relatively new. They started gaining more widespread attention this year, even before the recent protests, because of the COVID-19 pandemic. People realized that jails were a hotbed for the coronavirus and that paying bail was a way to get people out of jails and away from that health risk. Beyond these two crisis moments of the pandemic and the protests, Simonson hopes even more people get to learn about the power of bail funds and the role they could play in the larger picture of criminal justice.
“I’m so excited about the attention that bail funds are getting because I think at this moment, if you started out just saying, ‘What are people in America angry about right now?’ you probably have a tendency to focus on police,” she says. “There’s something about bail funds that allow us to start to see the continuous violence of the carceral state from moment to moment to moment. And if we can start seeing that together, that leads to very different visions of where to go next, bigger visions of where to go next, and it means you can’t just focus on police.”