This June, bail funds nationwide dominated the giving scene amid protests and calls for action against police brutality.
For many donors, the concept was new, though bail funds have been raising money to help release defendants from jail since 1920. The first one was created by the American Civil Liberties Union in response to the mass arrests of activists, radicals and labor union organizers amid the First Red Scare, a period of time beginning in 1919 when anti-Communist sentiment led to harsh policies against those who spoke out against the government.
Bail funds are rooted in times of civil unrest, but over the decades, many have focused their goals on combating the racial and economic disparities caused by the cash bail system.
Advocacy groups say the problem with the bail system, which exchanges money for a defendant's release, is that it creates a divide in justice between those who can buy their way out and those who cannot. Moreover, according to the ACLU, studies show that Black men are regularly assigned higher bail amounts than white men for similar crimes — an average 35% higher, even when controlling for the seriousness of the offense, according to the 2010 study by two Yale and University of Albany law students cited by the ACLU.
According to The New Yorker's recent article entitled "Where Bail Funds Go From Here," in New York, nine out of 10 defendants are unable to make bail and the majority are simply awaiting trial, a significant percent of whom have charges that are eventually dropped.
How it works
Different bail funds may have different processes for getting help to those who need it. In Hamilton County, community members may recommend individuals to be considered. A committee then reviews the application and assesses eligibility based on the nature of the crime, amount of bail and personal financial need, among other factors. To learn more about the local fund Chattanoogans in Action for Love, Equality and Benevolence, visit calebcha.org.
The system disproportionately affects an already over-burdened demographic, says Chattanooga activist Marie Mott. When a person cannot afford to post bail, they may languish in jail for weeks, even months, before their court date.
Mott points to her own city district, 60% of which, she says, are single-parent households.
"If that breadwinner goes to jail, they lose their housing, their jobs. Who's going to take their children back and forth to school?" she says. "When we think about dismantling these systems of oppression, bail funds are one of the most lucrative [ways]."
The mass arrests around the country that resulted from June's protests — including Mott — caused bail funds to go viral. Following the Memorial Day killing of George Floyd by police, organizations nationwide received unprecedented support totalling more than $90 million in donations. The Minnesota Freedom Fund alone — which, NPR reported, had a budget of about $150,000 at the end of 2018 — received $31 million in donations in just a few weeks. And the National Bail Fund Network which helps coordinate funds nationwide, including the Minnesota Freedom Fund and Hamilton County's own Community Bail Fund, received a record-setting $75 million.
Chattanoogan Mark Kieren was one of the nearly 2 million who donated to the national network.
"I had no idea there were organizations that existed just to help people overcome the difficulties that cash bail programs pose," Kieren says. "I was pretty upset with the treatment I saw protesters receiving as I watched the news come in. In a fit of empathetic rage combined with guilt regarding my own silence, I decided to give until it hurt. The way I see it, the money goes right to the people who were brave enough to stand up for what's right."