MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
To another story now - tens of millions of dollars that have been donated to bail funds over the last month to support Black Lives Matter protesters who've been arrested. Bail funds pay to get people out of jail - people not convicted of a crime who can't afford to post their own bond. NPR's Camila Domonoske reports these donations could have a lasting effect for years to come.
CAMILA DOMONOSKE, BYLINE: The Minnesota Freedom Fund bails people out of jail or immigration detention. A long, long time ago - you know, back in May - it was a little-known nonprofit on a shoestring budget. Here's board member Mirella Ceja-Orozco.
MIRELLA CEJA-OROZCO: We were always in need of more money and so constantly writing grant proposals to kind of figure out how we could obtain money to last us for the next few months.
DOMONOSKE: In 2018, the group had about $150,000 total. This spring, thanks to social media, it received more than $31 million in just a few weeks.
CEJA-OROZCO: So, like, it's just completely changed our world.
DOMONOSKE: The Minnesota Freedom Fund actually stopped accepting money for a while so it could figure out how to scale up its efforts. It's hiring more staff. The organization has been criticized for not figuring it out faster. Ceja-Orozco says there's a lot of work to do and very little time. And these Internet-fueled donations to bail funds aren't just flooding in to one group. Bail funds across the country, big and small, are feeling a boost.
MONTRELL CARMOUCHE: Now it feels like the work isn't in vain.
DOMONOSKE: Montrell Carmouche is the director of the Safety and Freedom Fund in New Orleans. It received $200,000 in 10 days. That's as much as it had managed to raise in its three years of existence.
CARMOUCHE: It feels like a movement. It feels like things are changing.
DOMONOSKE: Here's how bail funds work. When a person is arrested and charged with a crime, it might be weeks or months before their day in court. Until then, they are presumed innocent. But say their bail is set at $5,000. If they have that much money or can borrow that much money, they'll be set free until their court date. If they don't have the money...
CARMOUCHE: People are simply just sitting in jail because they can't afford to pay.
DOMONOSKE: A few states have abolished the system, but most still use it. Almost half a million people nationally are in jail waiting for trial. This obviously hurts low-income people. And in practice, it particularly hurts people of color. But bail funds crowdsource the resources to build a general pool of money, then put up bail for people who can't afford it. And that money isn't paid to the court forever. It's a guarantee that the defendant will show up to court, which the vast majority do.
CARMOUCHE: Once the person goes back to court, we pay the cash bail. We get all the money back, with the exception of the fees associated with the bailout. Then we're able to support more people and more people, and then the cycle continues.
DOMONOSKE: So the same money that bails out a protester now could bail out people arrested for any reason next year and the year after that - people like Vita McClebb, who was recently bailed out by Carmouche's fund after months in jail. McClebb faces charges of armed robbery and says she's innocent.
VITA MCCLEBB: Just because a person is arrested, don't always think that they're guilty of it.
DOMONOSKE: As a transgender woman, she has one word for what jail was like.
DOMONOSKE: Then came the pandemic. And McClebb, who has a compromised immune system, worried for her life. The court lowered her bond to $5,000, but McClebb says there's no way her family could've pulled that together.
MCCLEBB: No, indeed. No. If there wasn't a bail fund, there was no way because there is nobody to lean on for help.
DOMONOSKE: Bail funds exist for people like McClebb to lean on, and these new donations could give them a boost for years, although that's not really what bail funds want. Organizers say they're going to spend some of that new cash trying to make themselves obsolete by pushing for fundamental changes to the justice system.
Camila Domonoske, NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.