Staff Photo by Dan Henry / The Chattanooga Times Free Press- 4/5/17. An inmate covers up to keep warm while waiting to be locked up at the Hamilton County Jail in downtown Chattanooga on April 5, 2017.

Don't want to talk impeachment. Not yet.

Instead, a round of applause: Tivoli Theater, bravo. You're staging some exceptional performances these days. We recently saw "Les Miserables." It was magnificent.

You know the story. Frenchman Jean Valjean, imprisoned for stealing bread in starving times, can't escape his criminal past. Despite self-transformation, he is hounded by a merciless system designed against, not for, his best interest.

He can't get free.

The night we went, the place was packed. At the end, there was a rousing standing ovation.

If you stand for Jean Valjean, please consider standing once again.

Prisoners in Hamilton County need your attention, too.

Jean Valjean's prison system is broken.

So is ours.

Hundreds of innocent men and women sit in prison today.

Their only crime?


On average, about 860 pretrial detainees are incarcerated each month in our two jails — the Hamilton County Jail and Silverdale Detention Center — according to the Chattanooga Bail Fund.

What's a pretrial detainee? You've been charged with a crime and arrested, taken to jail, where you await your day in court.

Remember: you're innocent until proven guilty. All 860 men and women? Innocent in the eyes of the law.

Nearly half, on average, are charged with misdemeanor crimes.

Yet, because they often don't have enough money, they remain in jail, unable to afford bail.

During that time, they lose jobs. Families are evicted. Debt and despair pile up.

These 860 account for roughly half of our county's prison population; keeping them incarcerated costs taxpayers $35 million each year.

Middle- and upper-class Chattanoogans don't face this. We can make bail and go home until our court dates.

Like Jean Valjean, they are imprisoned by a justice system that works preferentially for the wealthy, not the poor.

The solution?

Reform the cash bail system in Hamilton County.

Eliminate bail for misdemeanor crimes. Bail isn't needed; most people will appear in court.

"From October 2017 to August 2018, [Indiana's] Hendricks County released 70 defendants on the lowest level of supervision. Only two of those 70 failed to appear at their future hearings, and only one was arrested for a new offense," reports Mitch Arvidson, policy analyst for the Council of State Governments.

Create a tiered system. For simple and nonviolent offenses, citizens go free until their trial date. Or, for higher charges, they check in routinely with pretrial officers. For violent or serious offenses, keep the bail system in place.

For the hundreds of local men and women charged with nonviolent crimes, eliminating cash bail would fix so much.

"Imagine the savings to our local communities if people were released and could continue working up until their trial. Not only does reforming the bail system save taxpayer dollars; it also helps the individual retain self-sufficiency and keep families stable," writes the Beacon Center's Stephanie Whitt.

According to Whitt, more than 40% of inmates in Tennessee are pretrial detainees. Constitutionally innocent, yet stuck in prison.

"Reforming or eliminating the cash bail system in Tennessee will save taxpayers money and enhance public safety," Whitt believes.

A few years ago, 11 Indiana counties reformed their bail systems, including, ironically, Hamilton County, Indiana.

There, 1,708 citizens, or 79% of defendants, were released under its reformed system, according to the Indianapolis Star.

Of those, 91% of men and women appeared in court.

"Local judicial officials believe failure to appear [FTA] rates have decreased since the pretrial program began," the Star reported.

Locally, the Chattanooga Bail Fund is a small example of larger reform; the fund, which relies on donations, posts bail for people who otherwise couldn't.

"We've posted bond for 23 individuals," said Michael Gilliland, who helped create the fund. "Our goal is still to reach 40 individuals by the end of the year."

Of the 23, only two didn't attend their court date, he said. The fund has raised $92,000 since last fall.

To donate, visit

To encourage bail reform, please contact our county commissioners and state representatives.

"Who am I?" Valjean sings.

More than a prisoner.


Wednesday, Nov. 20, is national Transgender Day of Remembrance. Locally, the Palace Theater will host an observance to honor those who died in 2019 due to transphobic violence.

"We also hold space on this day for those who are being harmed by lack of access, lack of care, lack of opportunity, lack of safety and other systemic human rights violations," the Scenic City Trans Collective stated.

Thirty-five percent of transgender students attempt suicide; 27% feel unsafe at school; and 35% are bullied at school, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Wednesday's event begins at 7 p.m. Locally owned Mama Crunk's Pies will provide food.

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David Cook

David Cook writes a Sunday column and can be reached at