Minnesota nonprofit with $35M bails out those accused of violent crimes

A Minnesota nonprofit has bailed out defendants from Twin Cities jails charged with murder, violent felonies, and sex crimes, as it seeks to address a system that disproportionately incarcerates Black people and people of color.  

And it has plenty of money to do it.  

The Minnesota Freedom Fund (MFF) received $35 million in donations in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd, with many of those donations intended to help protesters who were jailed during the demonstrations and riots in May.

UPDATE: Lawmaker wants transparency in bail system after FOX 9 investigation
The group’s mission was celebrated on social media with praise from Hollywood celebrities, like Steve Carell, Cynthia Nixon, and Seth Rogen.  
It was an unexpected windfall.  Prior tax returns in 2017 and 2018 show MFF would pull in about $100,000 in donations.   
"We initially got some raised eyebrows especially when we ramped up our activity from $1000 a day to now $100,000 a day, raised eyebrows from our bankers," said Greg Lewin, the interim executive director of the fund.

Who’s getting out?

Among those bailed out by the Minnesota Freedom Fund (MFF) is a suspect who shot at police, a woman accused of killing a friend, and a twice convicted sex offender, according to court records reviewed by the FOX 9 Investigators.   

According to attempted murder charges, 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.   

EDITOR's NOTE: A jury acquitted Stallings in this case. Stallings said he acted in self-defense, returning fire after the police fire what turned out to be less-lethal munitions -- and before he realized the people shooting at him were police officers. Video shows police firing 40mm rubber marking pellets followed quickly by Stallings firing from his handgun. Just prior to this, Stallings attorney says more body camera footage shows a Minneapolis sergeant suggesting being more "proactive and finding civilians instead of chasing our tail" in the hours after the 8 p.m. curfew. Stallings attorney maintains after being hit in the chest and the door of his pick-up with green police markings, as a trained shooter with the military, he responded with three shots from his handgun. Stallings insists he did not want to hit or injure the occupants and shot low. Then upon realizing the occupants in the unmarked car were police officers, Stallings dropped his handgun and laid it on the ground.

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 $350,00 in cash for his release.  
"The last time we were down there, the clerk said, ‘we hate it when you bail out these sex offenders, that is what they said'," Lewin said.  
Lewin said for MFF it is not about the crime, it’s about the system. 

In Minnesota, 60 percent of the jail population is waiting for trial, according to an analysis by the Vera Institute of Justice, based on data from 2015.  
That analysis found Black people are incarcerated in Minnesota jails at 4.7 times the rate of Whites; and, for Native Americans the rate is 11 times the rate for whites.  It is considered one of the largest racial disparities in the U.S.

Not the crime, 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," Lewin said.  
Much of the money donated to the MFF was given to help protesters get out of jail after Floyd’s death, and for "nuisance bail" for gross misdemeanor offenses. But, many of the protesters arrested were quickly released or only received citations.

When asked how many protesters were bailed out, Lewin responded, "probably a dozen in terms a direct bail actions." 
Before Floyd’s death, MFF bailed out 563 people with an average bail of $342, according to numbers provided by the group.

Since Floyd, the fund has bailed out 184 people, but the average bail is much higher, $13,195. MFF is also assisting 400 people with what they call pre-trial justice, like court fines, legal fees and lost wages. About 83% of those bailed out, the group said, have been Black, indigenous, or people of color.

"A lot of people are saying 'F the police,'" Lewin said.  "Those same people, quite frankly, should be thinking 'F the courts,' 'F the jail' because that is part of the same cycle."

The groups activities have caught the attention of bail bonding companies in the Twin Cities.

"There has to be some scrutiny on this," said Jeff Clayton, executive director of the American Bail Coalition.

Clayton said local bail bond companies have noticed a pattern in who MFF is bailing out, given the lower jail population because of COVID-19.

"It has to be violent criminals, because that is all that is left, there’s nobody left, there are no protesters left to spend this kind of money on," Clayton said.

The bail coalition recently wrote a letter to the Hennepin County Sheriff threatening to sue, if it didn’t release the names of inmates bailed out by MFF. 

"A judge or a prosecutor should know if it is Vladimir Putin’s henchmen posting the bond for this guy or a co-conspirator or if it is part of organized crime to bail this person out," Clayton said.

When a third party, like MFF pays all cash to get someone out of jail, that is not considered a public record.  The Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office said it could not provide the names of inmates bailed out by the Minnesota Freedom Fund.

The FOX 9 Investigators discovered the names of inmates bailed out by MFF, by finding a document in the court records where defendants agreed to return the bail money to MFF. 

‘Excessive’ vs. ‘Affordable’ Bail

Under Minnesota’s constitution there should be ‘no excessive bail,’ but that doesn’t mean it's ‘affordable.’

Bail is not punishment, it’s meant to guarantee the defendant comes back to court, and ensure the safety of the victim and community.

A judge has three choices when it comes to deciding bail: release a defendant without bail, on the own recognizances; set bail with conditions, like drug testing; or unconditional bail.

This is where the bail bond companies come in.

If bail is $10,000, for example, the defendant or someone else, must pay 10% of that sum up front, $1,000, non-refundable.  There must be a co-signer, who assumes responsibility for the rest of that $10,000 if the defendant doesn’t show up for court and a warrant is issued for their arrest.

A bail bondsman usually wants a co-signer with a bank account, credit history, or home to put up for collateral, all things that can work against the poor and communities of color.

"I have seen bail bondsmen attempt to position themselves as the answer here, but it is like a payday lender calling themselves a community resource. It is a predatory industry," Lewin said.

But the one’s making big money, aren't necessarily the bail bond shop on the corner; it’s the insurance underwriters, who get a 10% cut for underwriting the loan and usually pay out less than one percent of their revenue.

By comparison, home and auto insurance payouts are usually between 40 to 60 percent of revenue.

"There is no oversight because there is no regulation, specifically acting as a bail bondsman, not for profit, there is no regulation whatsoever, in Minnesota and everywhere else," said Clayton, who said his organization is funded by insurance underwriters.

MFF points out that not everyone they bail out is charged with a crime.

Domestic assault charges against one man, who Fox 9 is not identifying, were dismissed. But then, not everyone comes back for trial.

Donavan Boone was charged with breaking into the home of an ex-girlfriend and choking her.  According to the criminal charges, the victim told police she thought she was going to die.

MFF bailed Boone out for $3,000 cash.  He failed to show up for court and a warrant has been issued for his arrest.  MFF has forfeited the bail money.   

Where is the line drawn?

In Boston, police and prosecutors recently criticized a similar group, the Massachusetts Bail Fund, for bailing out a Level 3 sex offender who re-offended upon his release from jail.

Lewin admits some community groups in Minneapolis have expressed similar concerns about those who are being released and the transparency of the organization.

"And that is a relatively new, as of last week, that conversation that is getting started, we’ll see where it goes. I am curious to see where lines get drawn by folks," Lewin said.

MFF has set up an advisory council to get more feedback from community groups.

The MFF recently revealed its board membership after several members were ‘doxed’ on social media.