Minnesota Senate approves bill restricting bail charities like Minnesota Freedom Fund

Lawmakers in Minnesota Senate have approved a bill that would restrict which suspects that bail charities, like the Minnesota Freedom Fund, can bail out.

The legislation was approved Friday on a 36-30 vote in the Republican-led chamber. If approved by the Democrat-led House of Representatives and signed by Governor Walz, the legislation would prevent bail charities from using funds to bail out suspects in violent crimes or registered sex offenders. The legislation would also have to publicly disclose to authorities which suspects they've bailed out.

Last year, FOX 9 reported that the Minnesota Freedom Fund had collected $35 million in funds after being championed by social media influencers and celebrities looking to help protesters arrested in the aftermath of George Floyd's death. But, as the organization received a massive windfall of new donations, the group also faced renewed scrutiny from some county attorneys, like Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman who criticized the group for covering large bails for repeat offenders.

A FOX 9 investigation found that Freedom Fund had bailed out people accused of crimes including murder, rape, and gun offenses.

Speaking with FOX 9, the fund's interim executive director, Greg Lewin, said sometimes he wouldn't look at what charges the person he was bailing out was facing, explaining their focus is combating a bail system they feel is unjust.

"A lot of people are saying 'F the police,'" Lewin said in August of 2020.  "Those same people, quite frankly, should be thinking 'F the courts,' 'F the jail' because that is part of the same cycle."

Speaking Friday, the bill's author, Senator Mark Koran, R-North Branch, said that regardless of the intent of the organization, the end result has put "violent criminals back on the streets."

"With this windfall comes great power," argued Koran. "And there should also be a corresponding responsibility to wield this power wisely. This is where the organization has greatly diverted from helping low-income families and non-violent criminals. The expansion of assisting violent criminals has put Minnesota residents at great risk."

On the other side of the aisle, Senator Melisa Franzen, DFL-Edina, agreed there was some "merit" for discussion of the bill, but worried the language of the current legislation could be "too broad." Democrats argue that, until proven otherwise, suspects are only accused of a crime and financial means shouldn't be the deciding factor for who is in jail and who isn't.

"Minnesotans who are wealthy people can post large amounts of no-condition bail and they do," said Senator Jennifer McEwen, DFL-Duluth. "The Minnesota Freedom Fund is doing God's work. […] I worked for a public defender for the State of Minnesota public defender system and I saw the injustice day-in and day-out. Most of the people going through our criminal system are poor. They and their families do not have the financial resources to post a cash bail. […] Often times my clients could not afford to post even a lower bail amount [with conditions]. That means that poor Minnesotans are stuck in our county jails while they wait for the outcome of the trial to determine whether or not they are found guilty of what they are accused of. That can take months; that can take longer than a year. They are locked up waiting for their trial. They are only accused at that point."

"Of course we're concerned about safety, I'm concerned about safety too," added McEwen. "If a wealthy person, who has been convicted previously of violent crimes is accused of another and just posts their bail and goes free, I'm concerned about that too. I'm concerned about what they are going to do. But they have a constitutional right to that bail. And they post it and then they are free pending the outcome of their trial. That's how our constitution works; those are our rights. So, what you are doing [with the legislation] is setting up and reinforcing what we already have: a two-tiered system."

Without DFL-support, the legislation is unlikely to make it through the House before the end of Monday's legislative session.