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Minnesota Freedom Fund's New Leadership Discusses Accountability In Paying Bail For Those Who Can't Afford It

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) -- A Twin Cities nonprofit has taken in tens of millions of dollars since the murder of George Floyd.

The Minnesota Freedom Fund gained global attention from Kamala Harris, before she became vice president, and by a tweet from Justin Timberlake asking for donations. A windfall of money followed.

The group pays bail and immigration bonds for those who can't afford it. But some have questioned the group's accountability.

WCCO spoke with the group's new leadership, co-executive directors Mirella Ceja-Orozco and Elizer Darris, in their first on-camera interview.

"The mission itself really aligned with who I was as a person. I know what it feels like to have your freedom taken away," Darris said.

Since March, Minnesota Freedom Fund has been led by Ceja-Orozco, an immigration attorney, and Darris, a formerly incarcerated youth who most recently worked with the ACLU.

They wore masks during the interview, saying it's safer since they're in and out of jails paying bails. Ceja-Orozco served on the board when the world witnessed the death of George Floyd. She saw the influx of funds that followed.

"It was overwhelming, and overwhelming in a way that is quite scary, because you also realize that there's an immense level of responsibility that comes with that donation," Ceja-Orozco said.

The nonprofit's budget ballooned from $230,000 a year to nearly $42 million in 2020. In the year that followed, the group says it spent $15 million to pay bail for 1,349 people.

Very public cases made headlines in Minnesota and beyond. Instances where people bailed out by the Freedom Fund were then accused of committing another crime. Sometimes violent. In one case, murder.

"The last thing we would want is for someone to be harmed. It is a tragedy when that happens, and for us, you know, we take that to heart," Ceja-Orozco said. "And want to ensure that we are doing so the most responsible way, while also preserving the dignity of anyone who is accused of something."

They note that all but one case we referenced during our interview happened before they took over. In another previous instance, the Freedom Fund bailed out a man, arrested for firing at Minneapolis police during unrest. A jury acquitted him last fall.

"In that time, in which he would have stayed detained, he would have likely lost everything," Darris said.

Under this new leadership, we wanted to know what's changed.

"We've had to create policies, create departments, you know, have staff, have, you know, a checks-and-balance system internally as well for responsibility," Ceja-Orozco said.

We asked more about who they bail out.

Mirella Ceja-Orozco and Elizer Darris -- Minnesota Freedom Fund
Mirella Ceja-Orozco and Elizer Darris (credit: CBS)

"The vast majority of the people that we help are Black and brown people that are within the metropolitan area," Darris said.

Information Minnesota Freedom Fund provided WCCO showed 61.4% of people bailed out were Black, 82.8% men, and the majority, 65.7%, were in the Hennepin County Jail.

Most of the requests for help come from their website: from defense attorneys, or family. They explained the process.

"We do have now set protocols and procedures that look at a wide range or totality of issues or concerns. And looking at the community and looking at all of that together to make that determination," Ceja-Orozco said.

"So this isn't a public safety analysis," Darris said. "This isn't is this a situation in which this person is a risk or is this person isn't a risk. This is can this person afford it or can this person not afford it," Darris said.

WCCO asked for greater transparency. We wanted to know how many people have reoffended after being bailed out, how many cases were dismissed, or if a person was found innocent. They told us they don't disclose that information to maintain the privacy of their clients.

Bail information is mostly private. A hard-to-access repayment document to the Freedom Fund is filed with the courts.

Rep. Paul Novotny (R-Elk River) wants the information to be public and easily accessible.

"This is all information that's available. It's all collected. We just think it should be posted as part of the arrest record," Novotny said.

He intends to push forward a bill that would do that in this legislative session. The law enforcement veteran says a person is less likely to comply if they have nothing at stake.

"The concern would be that someone that has committed a crime of violence and has their bail posted for them has no skin in the game," Novotny said. "They have no reason to respond to court hearings."

More recently, the Minnesota Freedom Fund started tracking what happens after a person is bailed out, and says it offers support through post-release programs. Whether it be housing needs or a ride to court.

"It's something that we realized was essential to the organization being responsive to the community," Ceja-Orozco said. "If we're claiming to support it, then we are also doing so in a responsible way."

The executive directors told WCCO the nonprofit is currently working on a monthly bail budget of roughly $150,000 total. The goal is to end the cash bail system. They say they are open to talking with the impacted communities.

We reached out to the Hennepin and Ramsey county attorneys to ask if they think the Minnesota Freedom Fund hurts or helps the system.

Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman declined to comment.

The Ramsey County Attorney's Office acknowledged a problem with the current cash bail system, saying it is "working with our Sherriff's Office and other government stakeholders and the community to develop a process where people are detained pre-trial based on public safety risk rather than wealth."

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