The Minnesota Freedom Fund has launched a new political organization to push to end cash bail in Minnesota within the next decade, part of a broader movement nationwide to reform the bail system.

The Minneapolis nonprofit, which pays bails and immigration bonds for people who can't afford it, became a viral sensation on social media in 2020 after bailing out protesters following the murder of George Floyd. In the wake of that widespread attention — and growing scrutiny — the nonprofit started the Minnesota Freedom Fund Action last month.

Unlike most nonprofits, the new political arm, which held its first campaign event Tuesday, will be able to endorse candidates, donate to political campaigns and lobby lawmakers more.

Their goal is to end cash bail in Minnesota in seven to 10 years, said Mirella Ceja-Orozco, co-executive director of the organization.

"Our goal is to take ourselves out of business and being able to do so by ending cash bail," she said. "We learned so much from the attention that we got in 2020 and have continued to receive now, that this is a very important issue for the community."

Changes to the bail system are hotly contested nationwide. This year, Illinois became the first state to end cash bail, though that law is now being considered at the Illinois Supreme Court. In Wisconsin, Republicans have pushed for a constitutional amendment to require a judge to consider a defendant's potential public safety risk when setting bail.

In Minnesota, the Freedom Fund is pushing for legislation, backed by DFL lawmakers, that would lift bail requirements for some misdemeanor offenses if a judge determines there's no public safety threat and the defendant is likely to appear in court.

"We're trying to stop criminalizing or penalizing folks for being poor," said Rep. Cedrick Frazier, DFL-New Hope, who authored the House bill. He added that if it were to pass, it would be a first step for statewide bail reforms addressing racial inequities. "If we didn't have these disparities, we wouldn't have organizations like the Freedom Fund."

Meanwhile, state Republicans have proposed legislation to prohibit a nonprofit from paying bail — essentially forbidding the Freedom Fund from existing in Minnesota. The Minnesota Council of Nonprofits opposed a similar bill last year, saying it would be unconstitutional and disproportionately affect communities of color.

Sen. Mark Koran, R-North Branch, one of the Republicans behind the legislation, also authored a bill requiring the name of an individual or entity that paid cash bail to be made public. Koran said he wants the Freedom Fund to follow the same regulations that bail bonds companies follow, but added that both bills are unlikely to get a hearing in the DFL-controlled Legislature.

Koran said he agrees with critics that the court system is ineffective and slow, but he doesn't think the bail system should be eliminated or that the Freedom Fund should pay defendants' bail, especially for violent offenders.

"In this case, it's not their money. When it's other people's money they make very different decisions," he said. "It comes back to accountability."

The growing scrutiny by policymakers is part of why the Freedom Fund's leaders say they wanted to start a political organization.

"Unfortunately, our mission has become very politicized," Ceja-Orozco said. "Several years ago, most people didn't even know bail funds existed."

After someone has been arrested, judges set cash bail to ensure the accused shows up to their hearing. Bail money is returned if the person appears at their hearing, though the court may keep some as a processing fee. The Freedom Fund says bail money is returned in an average of 80% of their cases and is used to post bail for others, helping prevent people from lingering in jail as they wait pretrial.

The Freedom Fund says the system criminalizes poverty, disproportionately affects communities of color and costs taxpayers by detaining people before they've been convicted.

In 2020, both Ramsey County Attorney John Choi and then-Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman announced plans to reduce the use of cash bail. After a spike in crime, a group of suburban mayors wrote a letter last year to Freeman requesting his office revisit that policy and how crimes are prosecuted. Hennepin County Attorney Mary Moriarty, who was then chief public defender, criticized Freeman's office at the time for not doing enough to reform bail.

The Freedom Fund's new action fund will be a separate legal entity from the nonprofit, but will have a lot of the same staff, including Ceja-Orozco and co-executive director Elizer Darris.

Most nonprofits are registered under the IRS as a 501(c)(3), which aren't allowed to endorse political candidates or fund political campaigns, and are limited in the lobbying they can do. Donations to 501(c)(3) organizations are tax-deductible. Nonprofits that register as a 501(c)(4), as Freedom Fund Action is, can engage in unlimited lobbying, endorse and fund political campaigns, and donations aren't tax-deductible.

The Freedom Fund formed in 2016 to help mostly inmates booked on low-level charges pay bail under $1,000, instead of forcing defendants to sit in jail as they await hearings.

In 2020, after protesters were arrested for demonstrating after Floyd's murder, Justin Timberlake, Steve Carrell and other celebrities encouraged donating to the Freedom Fund. More than 900,000 donors flooded the nonprofit with $41 million. For a mostly volunteer-run nonprofit that usually received about $100,000 a year, the spike in support was unprecedented, crashing their PayPal account and email.

The new attention and money also spurred new criticism. Conservatives, including former President Donald Trump, ridiculed the Freedom Fund for attracting liberal supporters and bailing out violent offenders. Liberal activists blasted the organization for being led mostly by white people and for not being transparent with spending or using donations fast enough.

The organization pledged to hire diverse staff, increase partnerships with communities of color and establish new leadership to repair public trust. Since Ceja-Orozco and Darris took over in 2021, the Freedom Fund has expanded to 27 employees — almost all of whom are people of color — established new policies and procedures, released data and expanded its work beyond Hennepin and Ramsey counties to suburban and rural counties.

In 2021, the Freedom Fund said it paid bails for 544 people, posting an average bail of $9,334, and paid immigration bonds for 18 clients, with an average of $10,677 bond. More than 70% of clients are people of color and in 2021, half of all the charges were for misdemeanors, with protest-related charges being the most common.

Since 2020, Ceja-Orozco said, they've spent more than $20 million of $41 million received that year and the rest is continuing to support the revolving bail fund and its work.

"We're trying to address systemic harm where it criminalizes poverty," she said. "We're actually trying to protect the Constitution and people's constitutional right that they are innocent until proven guilty."

Ceja-Orozco left her job as an immigration attorney to co-lead the Freedom Fund. It's difficult work, she said, and she and Darris receive death threats weekly.

Opponents have criticized the Freedom Fund for paying bail for violent criminals, some of whom have gone on to commit other crimes. But Ceja-Orozco said defendants who haven't been convicted deserve due process, and affluent defendants who post bail could be a danger to society, too.

The Freedom Fund also started a post-release program to connect clients to services including treatment and housing — both helping the defendant and keeping the community safe, Ceja-Orozco said.

"Judges and bail bondsmen are just like us, not able to predict the future," she added. "We are from these communities ... it's personal work. It's something we take to heart when there is harm in the community, and it's something that we're continuously working to fix and address directly with impacted families."