One afternoon in June, Elisabeth Epps hopped into her silver 2001 Ford Escort with broken air-conditioning and drove from Denver to Boulder, carrying cashier’s checks worth nearly $16,000.
She wasn’t going on vacation or buying a new car. She made the 30-mile trip to sit in the reception area at the Boulder jail — or as she called it, the “Boulder County cage” — to bail out three men she had never met.
“I’m here to pay ransom,” Ms. Epps told her followers as she live-streamed herself on Twitter.
Ms. Epps, 40, founded the Colorado Freedom Fund in 2018 — one of nearly 100 community bail funds that have started up across the country in the past decade. The organizations use donor money to secure the release of individuals who are awaiting trial behind bars because they cannot afford their bail. Minus certain fees and lost bonds for people who miss their court dates, the money comes back as clients meet their legal obligations and can be spent again on the next person’s bail.
The grass-roots movement achieved a new level of mainstream attention after the May killing of George Floyd by the police in Minneapolis, when demonstrators took to the streets across the country.
During protests in Denver, volunteer medics handed out water bottles with the Colorado Freedom Fund’s phone number on the side. “I took a picture of it, thinking, ‘This is really smart,” said Desiree Wines, who was arrested along with her husband for violating curfew. “In the paddy wagon, I told everyone the number for the Colorado Freedom Fund. I said, ‘Hey guys, repeat this number until you get to a phone,’” Ms. Wines said. The fund paid $500 bail each for her and her husband.
Bail funds have become an instant cause célèbre, with actors and models, singers and rappers posting screenshots of their donations. Since the protests began, more than 3.5 million people and organizations have donated more than $75 million to groups associated with an umbrella organization called the National Bail Fund Network. Another group, the Bail Project — started by the founder of the pathbreaking Bronx Freedom Fund — said it had raised an additional $15 million.
The Colorado Freedom Fund received $1 million, 10 times more than the group had received in the previous two years combined. On a recent Monday, Ms. Epps freed a woman with a single $50,000 cashier’s check — more than the $43,876 her group handed out in all of 2019, to pay 182 bonds.
A thousand miles east, the Chicago Community Bond Fund paid a $400,000 bond on behalf of Chrystul Kizer, 19. She had been held in a Wisconsin jail for two years, accused of killing Randall Volar, 34, in what her supporters say was an act of self-defense by a victim of sex trafficking.
Another group in the network, the Minnesota Freedom Fund, received more than $30 million in donations, nearly 300 times the amount it received in all of 2018, the year of its last public tax filing. Some donors have begun to criticize the group for not putting a large enough share of the money to work quickly enough.
“Nonprofits will get themselves into trouble with donors if they try to save funds or divert funds to other purposes. Witness the post-9/11 problems of the Red Cross,” said Alan J. Abramson, director at the Center for Nonprofit Management, Philanthropy, and Policy at George Mason University. The Red Cross raised over half a billion dollars after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and was criticized after trying to repurpose some of the windfall for future disasters.
“It was very easy for people to make donations — click, click,” said Pilar Maria Weiss, director of the Community Justice Exchange, which runs the National Bail Fund Network. “They wanted the freedom part to go the same way.”
“You can’t show up with $31 million and say, ‘Now everybody gets to go home,’” Ms. Weiss added. “You have to grind through this horrible process.”
In greater Denver, Ms. Epps has learned that grind over the past two years. Each jurisdiction has a different payment system — in-person, online, kiosk. Some take cash or debit cards, others only cashier’s checks. It’s a piecemeal system of buying freedom that runs the mileage up on her car and tries her patience daily.
Ms. Epps, who said she was tear-gassed and shot with rubber bullets during the recent demonstrations, had an up-close view of the system last year, when she spent 16 days in the Arapahoe County Detention Center. She had been convicted of obstructing a police officer, after interceding when the police tried to question a mentally unstable man. Under the terms of her work release, she typically spent nights in the jail before leaving with an ankle monitor to spend the day bailing other people out.
“Not one woman in my unit needed to be there,” Ms. Epps said. “It even deepened my commitment to abolition. The community was not safer with any of those women spending nights in jail.”
‘There’s immediate impact’
Bail funds have been around in different forms for decades, used by civil-rights groups to prepare for arrests that follow protests and acts of civil disobedience. Some scholars trace their roots to black communities’ pooling money to buy the freedom of enslaved people. But the modern push for bail funds gained momentum with the start of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2013; the unrest after the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., by police in 2014; and the death of Sandra Bland in a Texas jail in 2015, while her family tried to post $500 to bail her out.
Jocelyn Simonson, a professor at Brooklyn Law School who studies bail funds, said that when she started looking at them in 2014 there were just three or four active ones.
Many bail funds began around fund-raising for specific events before developing into something more permanent. The Chicago Community Bond Fund grew out of an informal effort in 2014 for people arrested at a vigil for 17-year-old DeSean Pittman, who had been shot and killed by the police.
Sharlyn Grace, the executive director, described the appeal: “It’s extremely concrete. There’s immediate impact. You go down to the jail and buy someone’s freedom.”
The organization has raised $5 million since Mr. Floyd’s death. But not all of the funds may go to paying bail. Ms. Grace said she saw the money as belonging to the Black Lives Matter cause more broadly and that the donations were “a movement resource.” How the money is distributed to other groups could raise questions from donors, but Ms. Grace cautioned against too narrow a focus on bonds over broader problems in the criminal justice system. “We have to avoid the fetishization of bail funds in this moment,” she said.
‘An abolitionist lens’
In Colorado, Ms. Epps was inspired by the Black Mama’s Bail Out, which began in 2017 as an annual effort to secure the release of as many black mothers on Mother’s Day as possible. In 2018, Ms. Epps held her own fund-raisers and used the money to help get almost 20 women out.
She set a new goal of running a more permanent fund — the Colorado Freedom Fund. She did not realize just how challenging the “patchwork of administrative red tape” could be, she said. In Boulder, she has to present checks made out to the 20th Judicial District; in Arapahoe, they have to be in the defendant’s name; and in Weld County, they are made out to the sheriff.
Ms. Epps also works as an organizer in the policy department at the ACLU of Colorado. In 2018, the organization sued the city of Denver on behalf of a Colorado Freedom Fund client. As a result, the city agreed to stop collecting a $30 booking fee and a $50 bond fee that were preventing the release of poor defendants.
While using donations to pay bail, Ms. Epps and her co-director, Eva Frickle, also advocate legislative reforms, like a bill signed into law by the governor of Colorado last year eliminating bail for petty crimes.
“Our mission is to work ourselves out of existence,” Ms. Epps said. “We are unapologetically working through an abolitionist lens.”
Before the legislation passed, the Colorado Freedom Fund typically paid bail only up to $500. With minor offenses exempted and the recent influx of donations, Ms. Epps and Ms. Frickle are now able to handle cases with much higher amounts.
The fund receives requests from defendants and their lawyers, as well as referrals from family and friends. They prioritize defendants who have been held longer; one of the men in Boulder had been incarcerated since June 2019. Ms. Epps noted that $50,000 for someone whose court date is in December may be a better use of funds than 50 $1,000 bonds for people with trials in a week.
Above all, the group puts those “most harmed by the system first in line for release from it,” Ms. Epps said. “We prioritize the most vulnerable.”
‘It’s torture on top of the trauma’
One of those vulnerable people is M.J. Coleman. In 2018, she called the police for help leaving a hostile living situation. She did not know there was an outstanding warrant for her arrest, related to an incident when she’d hit a tree with her car. She was put behind bars, with bail set at an unaffordable $500.
Legal experts say that people who cannot afford to pay bail disproportionately take plea deals instead of fighting their cases. Ms. Coleman’s court date was months later. “I would have lost my job, my livelihood, had I had to sit in jail like that,” Ms. Coleman said in an interview.
As a transgender woman, she was kept in an isolation cell, wearing an orange jumpsuit, while other detainees mingled in a holding area wearing their own clothes. “It’s dangerous for them in general pop and dangerous in solitary,” Ms. Epps said. “It’s torture on top of the trauma of the cage.”
By coincidence, Ms. Coleman had met Ms. Epps once before, in the reception area of another jail, where both were waiting to bail people out. Ms. Epps ended up bailing out Ms. Coleman’s friend, and she was ready to help again when Ms. Coleman was arrested.
Free from jail and able to work, Ms. Coleman contested the charge, waited for her day in court, and ultimately settled for the price of a new tree.