After Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) was nominated to be Democratic nominee Joe Biden’s running mate, right-wing media began to attack her for previously urging people to donate to a bail fund in the wake of mass protests over the police killing of George Floyd. Conservative media and the Trump campaign have seized on Harris’ support to fearmonger about bail funds, demonizing efforts to reform the criminal justice system’s bail process that discriminates based on wealth and targets low-income communities.
Bail requires a defendant accused of a crime to pay a certain amount of money determined by the court -- often thousands of dollars -- in order to get out of jail while they await their trial. Today, nearly half a million people in U.S. jails have not been convicted of a crime, 90% of whom remain in jail because they cannot afford bail. This system disproportionately targets communities of color and those experiencing poverty. As the Center for American Progress’ Lea Hunter noted:
Spending even a few days in jail can result in people losing their job, housing, and even custody of their children. Studies show that pretrial detention can actually increase a person’s likelihood of rearrest upon release, perpetuating an endless cycle of arrest and incarceration. What is more, the cash bail system often leads to the detention of people who do not pose a threat to public safety.
Bail funds are organized to pay the bail of defendants who cannot afford to do so, allowing people to remain out of jail while they fight their case. Over the summer, donations to bail funds surged as protests against police brutality led to arrests nationwide. In June, for example, the Minnesota Freedom Fund reported receiving $31 million in donations as a result of the George Floyd protests in Minneapolis.
This recent surge of support for bail funds was met with attacks from right-wing media, which have sought to demonize the work of these groups. After Harris was named as the Democratic vice presidential candidate, right-wing media zeroed in on one of her tweets in support of the Minnesota Freedom Fund to accuse her of personally supporting criminal activity. Some said the fund helped an individual charged for committing sexual offenses involving a minor, and President Donald Trump repeated the claim.
In the process of attacking Harris, conservative media have egregiously misrepresented the function of bail funds, suggesting that people who donated are personally responsible for the crimes of defendants. Mary Hooks, co-director of Southerners on New Ground, and Jocelyn Simonson, a criminal law professor, wrote about the right-wing backlash to bail funds in The New York Times.
It is also part of a national push by right-wing groups to smear these funds in the wake of enormous support for them. The incredible growth of bail funds threatens the right, and the status quo, because it underscores the national reawakening around the intersection of racism, police violence and mass criminalization.
This kind of racist criticism is known as the “Willie Horton effect.” A single act of violence, especially when connected to the dog-whistle of a Black man’s mug shot, is used to derail larger efforts at promoting safety outside of the criminal system. Focusing so intently on one act obscures the everyday mass violence that the criminal legal system does to millions of people. It takes only a few days in jail for someone to lose her home, job, car, children, physical safety — and, during the pandemic, even her life.
Hooks and Simonson also note that “conservative news outlets have feigned shock that bail funds are working to release not just protesters, but also ordinary people.”
Right-wing media’s attempts to directly link Harris to serious offenses because of a tweet serve the dual purpose of attacking the Democratic vice presidential nominee for supposedly supporting criminal activity while also grossly fearmongering about the mission of bail funds. Here are some examples:
- On August 31, The Federalist published an article titled “Meet The Rioting Criminals Kamala Harris Helped Bail Out Of Jail.”
- Turning Point USA’s Charlie Kirk tweeted: “If Kamala Harris & Joe Biden actually condemn the violent rioters terrorizing our cities, why are they asking their supporters to bail them out of jail?”
- One America News’ Jack Posobiec tweeted: “BREAKING: Among the rioters Kamala Harris helped bail out is a suspect who shot at police, a woman accused of killing a friend, and a twice-convicted sex offender.”
- YouTuber Steven Crowder tweeted: “Kamala Harris wants you to know she denounces violent rioters... but also, you should give money to bail out violent rioters!”
- On September 16, The Daily Caller reported that the Minnesota Bail Fund “promoted by Kamala Harris helped [a] man accused of sexually penetrating a child.”
- That night on The Ingraham Angle, Fox host Laura Ingraham said, “The Daily Caller News Foundation now reported, just moments ago, that the bail fund helped a man accused of sexually assaulting an 8-year-old girl get out of jail in July.” Her guest, The Daily Wire’s Ben Shapiro, said that he doesn’t “know why this is a shock at all.”
- On September 17, The Federalist covered the report with the headline: “Kamala Harris Promoted Fund That Bailed Out Man Accused Of Raping A Child.”
- Fox News contributor Newt Gingrich also tweeted the report: “The Minnesota Freedom Fund, a bail fund promoted by Democratic vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris helped a man accused of sexually assaulting an eight-year-old girl get out of jail in July, court records show.”
- That same day, Fox News’ website wrote that “a bail fund promoted by Democratic vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris and many staffers on Joe Biden's campaign helped release an accused child abuser.”
- During a Fox & Friends headline read, anchor Jillian Mele reported that “a bail fund promoted by vice president nominee Kamala Harris and some Joe Biden campaign staffers helped release an accused child abuser.”
- On September 18, The Daily Caller touted Trump's mention, during a rally the night before, of the site's report on the bail fund.
- On September 22, The Daily Caller published another report headlined: “Bail fund promoted by Kamala Harris helped free serial domestic abusers.”
- The next day, The Daily Caller tweeted: “Now that we've uncovered that this fund bailed out criminals ranging from a man accused of sexually assaulting an eight-year-old to a guy who allegedly strangled a woman in front of her kids, maybe the press will ask Senator Harris some questions about it.”
- The report was pushed by the Trump campaign on Twitter.
- Breitbart covered The Daily Caller’s report, writing: “Kamala Harris Promoted Bail Fund that Freed Six Domestic Abusers.”
- Trump’s campaign responded to a tweet from Harris sharing that she was inspired to become a prosecutor in high school when a friend confided that she was molested by her father, saying: “Kamala Harris encouraged donations to a far-left group in Minnesota that bails violent criminals, including sex offenders and domestic abusers, out of jail.”
- The Daily Wire wrote: “A bail fund promoted by Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) bailed half a dozen men out of jail over the summer, all of whom are accused of domestic violence.”
- On the September 24 edition of Fox News’ Outnumbered, contributor Katie Pavlich brought up the bail fund and said that Harris “has a lot to answer for when it comes to her role in the unrest over the last couple of months.”
- On September 26, Fox News host Tucker Carlson attacked The Bail Project on his show, saying that the organization “sends money to rioters and other violent criminals to help get them back on the streets as quickly as possible.”