The Minnesota Freedom Fund, which bails low-income people out of jail or immigration detention, formerly ran on a shoestring budget of $150,000. In the past few weeks, the group received $31 million from more than 900,000 donations, NPR reports. In most places, someone charged with a crime can put up bond to leave jail until a court date. That means people who have or can borrow thousands of dollars walk free, while those who can’t afford it stay in jail. Nearly half a million people at any given time are jailed awaiting trial. Low-income defendants might spend weeks or months behind bars, while richer defendants return to jobs and families. Or, they might plead guilty to a crime they didn’t commit because they can’t afford to wait in jail.
Bail funds pay to spring those low-income defendants. Funds across the U.S. saw an influx in donations, prompted by calls on social media, as people sought to support the activists protesting the killing of George Floyd. The Minnesota Freedom Fund’s surge in donations has attracted the most attention and controversy. It has been criticized for not spending money faster, despite the tremendous difference between its normal operating budget and the new donations. Other bail funds have felt the boost too — from tiny ad-hoc efforts to large nonprofits like the Bail Project, which operates in 21 locations and got $5 million in recent donations. The New Orleans Safety and Freedom Fund received $200,000 in ten days, about how much it had raised in its three years of existence. Many bail funds had been pushing to get people released because of the coronavirus risk in crowded jails. Pilar Weiss of the National Bail Fund Network says the need is acute. “You can spend tens of millions of dollars in bail, unfortunately, very quickly,” she says.