The United States incarcerates more people than nearly any other country in the world. Among the millions in detention at any given time are hundreds of thousands being held in jails. According to the Prison Policy Initiative, “More than 400,000 people in the U.S. are currently being detained pretrial – in other words, they are awaiting trial and still legally innocent.” A significant portion of these people are “jailed pretrial simply because they can’t afford money bail.” Increasingly, nonprofit bail funds, such as the Minnesota Freedom Fund (MFF), are stepping in to offer an alternative to the predatory bail bonds industry.
Elizer Darris, MFF’s co-executive director, explains, “Historically, people have been released on what’s called their own recognizance—meaning their word that they will come back.” But, he says, the reality is that “there has not been any type of causal connection between bail and someone’s reappearance.”
Yet there is one causal connection that deeply concerns Darris: the link between the skin color of people who are arrested, and an assumption of their guilt. High on the list of issues that MFF tackles is “the criminalization of Black and Brown people” and “the automatic determination that because of how I look I must be guilty.”
“Something that a lot of people don’t know, and it actually may shock people,” Darris says, is that “jails actually have worse living conditions than prisons.” He says the criminal justice system essentially holds poor people hostage to “terrible jail conditions.”
“Our organization exists so that [prosecutors] aren’t able to use coercive practices like jailing in order to get people to plead guilty to offenses that they otherwise would not be guilty to,” Darris says. MFF makes bail payments on behalf of people who are jailed and who otherwise would be unable to afford the bail that buys them their freedom while they await trial or formal charges.
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The organization, which was the focus of news coverage and donations during the racial justice uprisings of 2020, is now facing a Republican-led state bill that would make it illegal to operate a nonprofit bail fund in Minnesota.
Darris, who views the entirety of the criminal justice system as problematic, says, “What we have decided to do as an organization was to have a historical view to recognize that many of the policies and practices that we see today have their roots in slavery in the United States.” Given such a framing, he sees it as “an obligation to disrupt those practices, and that’s precisely what we are doing.”
“Our organization isn’t just focused on bail funds,” Darris says. “It’s called the ‘Freedom Fund,’” because that name reflects a “broader definition that takes on the criminal justice system.”
“We are trying to disrupt some of the predatory practices that are happening within bail,” Darris says. “But what we’ve seen is that’s just not enough.”
As a nonprofit, MFF is prohibited from participating in political activism—so it has recently expanded its work into a second organization, a 501(c)(4) organization called MFF Action, whose function will be to “actually take action to put boots on the ground to door-knock within our community to not just support legislation, but to craft legislation.”
“If you can’t change the policies, you change the policymakers, you change the people who will put community at the center of their decision-making,” Darris says.
High on MFF Action’s list of priorities is gaining access to better data. Currently, district courts have limited public access data about who is required to pay bail, which makes it harder for activists to make their case against predatory bail practices.
Additionally, Darris says MFF Action will work to “make sure that bails aren’t being issued on some of the exceedingly low-level offenses that, quite frankly, do not impact public safety in the least bit.”
He says, “Part of the U.S. Constitution is that you cannot be given the bail that is excessive. You have to take into account the person’s ability to pay. [Prosecutors are] not doing that here in Minnesota. And so, we are fighting to make sure that bails aren’t just frivolously being given out.”
Sonali Kolhatkar is currently the racial justice editor at YES! Media and a writing fellow with Independent Media Institute. She was previously a weekly columnist for Truthdig.com. She is also the host and creator of Rising Up with Sonali, a nationally syndicated television and radio program airing on Free Speech TV and dozens of independent and community radio stations. Sonali won First Place at the Los Angeles Press Club Annual Awards for Best Election Commentary in 2016. She also won numerous awards including Best TV Anchor from the LA Press Club and has also been nominated as Best Radio Anchor 4 years in a row. She is the author of Bleeding Afghanistan: Washington, Warlords, and the Propaganda of Silence, and the co-director of the nonprofit group, Afghan Women's Mission. Her forthcoming book is Rising Up: The Power of Narrative in Pursuing Racial Justice (City Lights, 2023). She has a Master’s in Astronomy from the University of Hawai’i, and two undergraduate degrees in Physics and Astronomy from the University of Texas at Austin. She reflects on her professional path in her 2014 TEDx talk, “My Journey From Astrophysicist to Radio Host.” She can be reached at sonalikolhatkar.com