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With nearly $30,000 in donations, organizers of a newly formed Chattanooga bail fund say it's one step closer to its goal of getting an indigent person out of custody by the year's end.

Since its launch on Oct. 18, the fund has raised or gotten commitments for about $30,000, including two donations from the Benwood and Footprint foundations, said Michael Gilliland, a member of Chattanoogans in Action for Love, Equality and Benevolence. That nonprofit organization, known as CALEB, and other community groups and volunteers have been discussing the concept of a bail fund since early fall.

"Our initial goal was $20,000, and we met that in about two weeks," Gilliland said, "and our next goal is $100,000 through 2019. At that point we'll hopefully be able to hire and seek nonprofit status."

About half of the county's 1,700 inmates haven't been convicted of their charges, and yet they lose employment, time with their families, medical stability and the ability to rigorously fight their cases because they can't make bail, the Times Free Press previously reported.

CALEB says that's the reality for poorer defendants, as opposed to those who can buy their freedom. That's why the group is raising money and teaming up with Public Defender Steve Smith and others to use privately funded donations to bail people out. From there, the group would ensure a person gets to their court appearances. Once a case is finished, the money returns to the fund. Similar groups exist in Nashville, Memphis and across the country, and they say it's better justice with a monetary upside.

"I'm tired of knowing that we have people who are in jail who aren't convicted of any crimes, which destroys their innocence, and they cop to a charge, sometimes serious, just so they can get out of custody," said Marie Mott, a Chattanooga activist who spoke at the fund's Oct. 18 launch event, which had Smith, Hamilton County Commissioner David Sharpe and representatives other of nonprofits and community groups in attendance.

Right now, said Felipe Lara, another CALEB member, the fund is finalizing its criteria for who it will help, and when. It is looking at people with $5,000 bonds or less who have no other holds, charges or warrants in Hamilton County. If it's a more technical offense, such as a probation violation, the fund will consult the Public Defender's Office, Gilliland said. Any failures to appear also will be taken into consideration, since the fund must ensure the person returns to court.

All of this is in preparation for the fund's next goal: Using the money to bail someone out before the year ends.

"Why would we hold those who are less financially equipped to a different standard? It just doesn't seem right, particularly when it's costing our communities so much money," Sharpe said. "We're looking at $3 million a month, almost $100,000 a day to put people in jail, and then to learn so many of those are just pretrial detainees? I personally think it would be very difficult to argue against this particular program."

Contact staff writer Zack Peterson at zpeterson@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6347. Follow him on Twitter @zackpeterson918.

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