Brad Wright of Brooklyn Park is a 34-year-old father of four, a north Minneapolis native who knows firsthand how being part of what he calls an “overpoliced, underbanked” community can lead Black men into the criminal justice system at disproportionate rates.
So Wright is taking action. He and two partners have created a new public benefit corporation called Vonzella, which aims to upend the cash bail industry by offering bail insurance.
In more affluent communities, people may not think of cash bail, where one posts an appointed amount of money to be released from jail, as a tool that hurts underprivileged communities.
But that ignores the complexities of a criminal justice system that disproportionately affects people of color, particularly Black males in poorer neighborhoods who studies show are overpoliced and arrested for minor offenses in far higher numbers.
A 2019 American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) study, for example, found that Blacks are arrested for violating marijuana possession laws nearly four times more frequently than whites, despite comparable usage rates of marijuana in the two populations.
A 2017 ACLU study found that Blacks in Minnesota are imprisoned at a rate 10 times higher than whites.
Someone without the financial means to post bail has to await trial while sitting in jail. And that leads some people to decide to plead guilty to lower charges just to avoid longer prison sentences or to get probation — a decision can follow them throughout life.
Wright points to a couple of childhood friends who were found with two Vicodin pills. They had just turned 18. They were scared of jail. They didn’t have bail money. When prosecutors offered a deal, they pleaded guilty to drug possession and received probation — not knowing that being tagged as felons would chase them throughout life, their criminal record making it harder to get a job and more likely they’d end up back in jail.
“They thought, ‘Oh man, that’s great, they’re giving me a second chance,’ ” Wright said.
“But it’s never a second chance.”
Vonzella partner Julie Kucinski agrees.
“A huge number of overpoliced and underbanked folks are getting their lives ruined by petty, minor crimes that you or I would never be brought in for,” she said. “And it creates long-term consequences that wreck lives. It’s not about getting a murderer out of jail. It’s about helping people not sit in jail for three weeks because of something like a cracked taillight.”
A year ago, Wright walked into Versatile Hands, a Minneapolis barber shop.
Inside was a white guy named Judd Grutman, an attorney who has defended wrongfully convicted people. Grutman went to the barber shop to connect with people in the Twin Cities Black community. When Wright walked in, they hit it off talking about bail insurance. By the time Grutman got back to his office, Wright had already texted him, asking if they might work together.
Grutman moved to the Twin Cities last year for a fellowship for social enterprise leaders at Finnovation Lab. He chose Minnesota because it has the nation’s most complete and accessible data on cash bail.
That data showed that people are three times more likely to be convicted if fighting a case from inside jail vs. outside.
Grutman wanted to disrupt that entrenched industry. How? By offering an affordable bail insurance option so that one arrest doesn’t lead to a cascade of other problems.
“We get the question a lot: ‘Why buy this?’ ” Gruman said, referring to Vonzella’s idea of bail insurance. “You wouldn’t buy this in Palo Alto. But people like Brad are desperate for this and are often excluded from financial products.”
Grutman offered Wright equity in the company. There was plenty about Wright that made him a perfect fit: His enthusiasm, his sales experience, the immediate trust Wright engendered in the community Vonzella (Vonzella.com) is attempting to serve.
“People criticize the system for being wealth-based detention,” Grutman said. “If you have that $10,000, you can not only pay it and get out of jail, but the bail is returned to the defendant as long as you show up. Wealthy people are able to buy their way out, whereas a poor person is in a bind that could leave them with a life of debt to a bondsman. Bondsmen want people to get arrested. That’s how their business survives.”
The company is raising money for its pilot program and recently won $50,000 in the University of Minnesota Carlson School of Management’s MN Cup, a public-private partnership that supports Minnesota entrepreneurs with an annual competition.
Giving power back
The first time Wright was arrested, he was 12. Some friends were joy-riding in a stolen car. Wright was in a friend’s backyard in north Minneapolis when he saw those two friends running for their lives. The friends shouted, “Go, go, go!,” so he started running. One cop incorrectly fingered Wright as the driver. He was taken to jail and later found guilty in juvenile court, where there’s no right to a jury trial.
Situations like that happened again and again throughout Wright’s teens and into his 20s. Sometimes he had done something wrong; sometimes he hadn’t. Wright grew up in a divorced household, his dad in north Minneapolis, his mom in Golden Valley.
His bifurcated childhood meant he lacked a distinct identity: Did he fit in in the suburbs, where he was one of only a few Black kids, or did he fit in in a north Minneapolis in the midst of the crack epidemic?
He had to do more than just act like a tough guy. “If you disrespected me, we’re going to fight,” he said. At 18, he was at a party when he and some friends got in a fight; a gun was fired and a teenager was killed. His pastor at New Salem Baptist Church helped get Wright away from bad influences, and he enrolled at Minnesota State-Mankato.
On Wright’s 21st birthday, he learned that a close friend had been murdered. A few years later, after Wright’s first child was born and he’d secured a good job as an apprentice electrician, he was driving with friends in north Minneapolis. A teenager shot into the car; one of his best friends since childhood was killed.
Wright moved to Houston in 2014 soon after his friend’s murder, then Oklahoma City, before returning to Minnesota in 2017 after his dad got sick and, later, died.
George Floyd’s killing in May has energized discussions about racial equity issues, with a renewed reception for Vonzella’s mission. (Vonzella is named for the mother of the first client Grutman got exonerated through DNA evidence when he worked at the Michigan Innocence Clinic during law school.)
There are options like Vonzella in the Twin Cities, including the Minnesota Freedom Fund which pays bail for underprivileged people. But Wright never heard about any options until this year.
When Wright presented about Vonzella at the MN Cup, he wore a sweatshirt that read, “I am not a charity case.” That’s the point of Vonzella: To create an alternative system that gives some power back to these communities.
“That’s the goal, to incentivize decarceration rather than incarceration,” Wright said. “We don’t need a savior. We need the agency to be able to save ourselves.”