THIS STORY IS PART OF THE COMMUNITY VOICE'S SOLUTIONS JOURNALISM SERIES
In Kansas, 53% of those detained in our county jails are not serving a post-conviction sentence, nor are they being held to answer to a motion to revoke their probation. These inmates are simply waiting in jail for their trials to begin because they can’t afford to pay the bail amount ordered by the court. They’re often referred to as “pretrial detainees.”
Waiting in jail for a trial can be disastrous for the detainees and their families. They are not able to earn a living, and at the same time, they’re likely incurring debt, with most jails charging detainees a per diem fee. More than likely when they finally do get out, they don’t have a job to return to, and sometimes not even a home to live in, because their rent has remained unpaid for months and they have likely been evicted.
The non-profit Minnesota Freedom Fund says this system of bail is “unjust,” and that wealth should never determine who is kept in jail, which is exactly what the American bail system does. In 2016, the non-profit formed and began raising funds and bailing Minnesota residents out of jail.
“We have always prioritized those who are unable to pay for freedom and face the greatest level of danger and marginalization,” wrote Greg Lewin, MFF interim director.
The nonprofit prioritizes giving assistance to:
• BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Color)
• Those experiencing homelessness
• People arrested who live in Minnesota
• Those who have been detained while fighting for justice
Prior to the George Floyd murder, the fund limited their bail assistance to $1,000 per person, and had a small operating budget of about $100,000 per year. Before Floyd’s death, MFF bailed out 563 people with an average bail of $342, according to numbers provided by the group.
That’s 563 individuals impacted directly and an unmeasurable number of lives impacted indirectly.
About 83% of the people they bailed out were Black, indigenous or people of color.
What is Bail?
Bail is a set of pre-trial restrictions that are imposed on a suspect to ensure that they comply with the judicial process, typically showing up for their trial. In some countries, bail is more likely to be a set of restrictions that the suspect must abide by for a set period of time. However, in the United States, bail is typically either a bail bond or a cash bond.
Bail bonds are paid to private companies who typically pay the full amount of your bond to the court and you pay them a percentage of the amount – typically 10% – as a nonrefundable fee. In a cash bond, the suspect pays the court the full amount of the bond, which is typically returned after the trial is finished, even though a small processing fee may be charged by the court.
If an individual can’t come up with the cash bond or enough money to pay the bond fee, they sit in jail until their court case is complete, which can be months or years. Like we said earlier, 53% of people in county jails in Kansas are there because they can’t afford to pay the bail or bond. That number is 60% in Minnesota.
“Putting it bluntly, cash bail is an abusive system that criminalizes poverty and takes a disproportionate toll on Black people, indigenous people, and people of color. It doesn’t matter whether you are guilty or innocent – if you cannot afford to post your bail, you will stay in jail until your trial,” wrote MFF’s Lewin.
In addition, there is very little evidence that posting bail makes it more likely people will appear in court. In New Jersey and Washington, D.C., where cash bail has been all but abolished, over 90% of defendants appeared for their court dates — a higher figure than had shown up while the cash bail system was still in effect.
George Floyd Boom
What was a small fledgling organization “blew up” in the midst of the George Floyd murder protests in Minnesota. The group’s mission was celebrated on social media with praise from Hollywood celebrities, like Steve Carell, Cynthia Nixon, and Seth Rogen, and people started contributing. In just weeks, probably days, the organization received 900,000 donations totaling $30 million.
Money was to be used to pay the bail of protestors. With many of the protestors let go on their own recognizance, or ticketed instead of arrested, the organization went to work bailing out all the remaining protestors, but that number only totaled $250,000.
“Providing bail for protestors is ongoing,” wrote Lewing. “The uprising is not over and it is likely more people will be arrested at protests in the weeks and months to come.”
But the likelihood of spending the remaining money on protestor bail, is unrealistic. The organization is now stepping back to take a look at how they can best further support for the Black Lives Matter Movement.
The organization finds themselves trying to figure out a way to use the money in a responsible way that represents the intent of those who donated.
“We are committed to being accountable to our Black-led movement partners, knowing that funds were donated to support the movement for Black liberation and abolition of racist policing and pretrial detention,” wrote Lewin.
MFF’s Goal to End Bail
While MFF has been blessed with a windfall, their goal was never to build a huge bail fund, the group’s organizers say.
The bail fund was built out of the necessity to respond to racialized policing and prosecution.
“Our goal has always been to free as many people as possible and then put ourselves out of business by ending pretrial detention,” Lewin wrote. “We are dedicated to bailing out as many people as possible, as quickly as possible, while we join other allies in advocating for comprehensive criminal justice reform.
MFF Freeing More Than Protestors
With so much money on hand, the MFF board angered some in the community by using their windfall to free people that others felt should remain in jail.
Even before George Floyd, Lewin says the organization did not consider the type of crimes the defendants they bailed out are charged with.
For MFF, it’s not about the crime, but the system.
“I often don’t even look at a charge when I bail someone out,” Lewin said. “I will see it after I pay the bill because it is not the point. The point is the system we are fighting.”
Still with big dollars, the organization has been bailing out individuals with major criminal charges.
According to Fox 9 in Minnesota, MFF has bailed out:
A suspect who shot at police, a woman accused of killing a friend, and a twice-convicted sex offender.
Jaleel Stallings shot at members of a SWAT Team during the riots in May. Police recovered a modified pistol that looks like an AK-47. MFF paid $75,000 in cash to get Stallings out of jail.
Darnika Floyd is charged with second-degree murder, for stabbing a friend to death. MFF paid $100,000 cash for her release.
Christopher Boswell, a twice-convicted rapist, is currently charged with kidnapping, assault, and sexual assault in two separate cases. MFF paid $350,000 in cash for his release.
Most Americans Favor More Favorable Bail Policies
When surveyed, most Americans favor more lenient bail laws, but MFF’s most recent releases may be pushing Americans’ limits.
Just 58% of respondents supported releasing people accused of violent crimes, only if they did not have serious criminal histories and if the release is accompanied by pretrial supervision. Two-thirds of the respondents believed that crimes driven by addiction or mental illness should be met with treatment, not jail.