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Why the Minnesota Freedom Fund is now about more than paying people’s bail

In the face of violent crime spikes in the Twin Cities and claims that county lockup has turned into a “revolving door,” the MFF — which has learned lessons since receiving millions of dollars in donations after George Floyd’s death — isn’t backing away from community members who need help paying bail.

A protester is detained by police officers during a rally against the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis on May 31, 2020.
A protester is detained by police officers during a rally against the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis on May 31, 2020.
REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

In the aftermath of George Floyd’s death, the Minnesota Freedom Fund (MFF) — which pays bail for those who can’t afford it — received tens of millions of dollars in donations. 

If someone can’t pay bail, and a bail fund isn’t around to cover the cost, someone accused of a crime is kept in jail until their trial. Across America’s court systems, it can take weeks, months, even years before a trial begins. 

Years — that’s how long it took for Kalief Browder, who was arrested in New York after being accused of stealing a backpack when he was 16. He spent three years in pre-trial detention. Eventually, the charges were dropped, he was released, and then later died by suicide at his parent’s house. 

Minnesota Freedom Fund, formed in 2016, raises money to pay bail for people who are also stuck in the bail system locally in the Twin Cities. After the death of Floyd, the fund was flooded with donations. 

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MFF only had one employee in May 2020 and experienced massive growth as the donations poured in. That rapid expansion came with growing pains. But, in the time since Floyd was killed, the MFF has learned lessons, changed leadership and added staff and new practices, said co-executive director Elizer Darris. 

With the new operation established, MFF leadership said the organization is ready to push bail reform — not just in a hot flash of spending all of its resources on bail and burning out as an organization while little has changed when it comes to bail policy — but for the long haul. For example, MFF has added a team dedicated to undoing current bail policies. 

But also, in the time since May 2020, the Twin Cities has seen an uptick in violent crimes such as carjackings and homicide. 

Zaynab Mohamed
Zaynab Mohamed
“Crime is something we can’t overlook and have to work on as a community,” said Zaynab Mohamed, who works on bail reform in Minnesota for the Wayfinder Foundation, a national organization. “But the reason why I work on things like fundamentally changing the criminal justice system including bail reform is that having bail for people who have potentially committed a crime until they show up to court doesn’t deter crime from happening.”

She also said the notion that setting bail will ensure that someone will appear for their court date has not been proven. 

According to Darris, the MFF’s organizational changes have nothing to do with their approach to bail reform but were a result of new procedures designed to keep the organization afloat and provide resources for MFF’s efforts to lobby for changes to the bail system. 

And the crime wave — and the fear it produces among residents of the Twin Cities metro — has not and will not cause the MFF to waver from its goals. 

“This nation is oftentimes reactive,” said Darris. “It ebbs and it flows. We are in a cycle right now of reactive justice. Reactive justice perverts justice. We have to resist the urge to utilize a reactive, mob-like approach to saying, ‘Burn the accused’ and disregard the tenets that are supposed to be founding (of) the nation. Some of those are ‘innocent until proven guilty,’ the presumption of innocence, the notion that you are going to have access to counsel if accused and that you are going to have a fair, public and open trial.”

A mission of MFF’s is to end pretrial detention, said Darris.

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“No one wins when someone is held pretrial without a conviction, criminalized and penalized as though they have a conviction,” said the co-director.

In Minnesota, when someone is charged with a crime, a judge can decide if the accused should be held on bail. Three are legal limits for bail for certain crimes, and there is a guideline a judge can follow at their discretion. If someone is unable to pay bail, they are detained until their trial begins, which again, can take weeks or months. 

“What job is going to hold on to a person’s position for two weeks, three weeks, two months?” said Darris. “What apartment is going to hold on to a person’s unit just because they are detained? They are not going to do that. People suffer these harms from even low-level offenses.”

Elizer Darris
Elizer Darris
Darris called cash bail “predatory” because it leaves people who cannot afford it vulnerable to losing their work, their home – and thus more open to agreeing to a plea deal in order to get out of jail and back to their job. 

“They are like, ‘OK, I have five years probation, I’m a felon now, but I can go home, I can pay my bills, I’m not going to lose my family,’” Darris said. He also said there is research showing people who cannot afford bail and await their trial in lockup have a higher rate of being convicted than those who post bail. 

“We’re not saying we don’t want a fair and equitable trial, we’re saying we don’t want fingers on the scale,” said Darris. 

MFF is a community fund, said Darris, which means the organization will only consider paying bail for people from the Twin Cities metro area. Currently, they are paying bail for people in Hennepin, Ramsey, Dakota, Anoka and Washington counties. 

The MFF will not deny a request to pay bail for someone solely because of the severity of the charge. But there are a few exceptions as to who the fund will refuse to assist, such as people who have been accused of terrorism or members of white supremacist groups. 

One big shift in MFF’s policy is a cap on the amount of bail the organization will pay for a single case. This change was made so that the fund wouldn’t run out of money, and money could be used for lobbying, not due to a shift in the organization’s approach to bail reform, Darris said. Darris said MFF will not disclose its bail cap because it doesn’t want prosecutors intentionally requesting bail above that amount. 

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“The Minnesota Freedom Fund, we’re invested in public safety,” said Darris. “These are our communities. This is where we live, where our loved ones live. That doesn’t mean we’re willing to sacrifice the safety and well-being of some community members to create the illusion of safety for other community members. More incarceration, especially more pretrial detention, is just not the answer to community violence. Decades of studies show that incarceration has no deterrent to crime and serves no rehabilitative function at all.”

Even now, as the crime wave continues and fears swell, Darris said MFF is not going to support “cannibalizing” some accused community members in order to assuage the fears of others.