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Staff Photo / Dylan Gibbons, the bail fund manager for the Hamilton County Community Bail Fund, poses at the Metropolitan Ministries Impact Hub on Thursday, March 18, 2021, in Chattanooga, Tenn.

The three Republican candidates for county mayor and two candidates for district attorney have discussed a variety of issues: crime, education, jobs.

Yet there is another emergency affecting countless county residents.

Prioritizing this issue would protect families and support local economies while also honoring both our state and U.S. Constitution and reforming our local criminal justice system.

We could also save — at a minimum — an estimated $3 million annually in the county budget.

"There are people sitting behind bars who are legally innocent, who have not been convicted of charges they're being held on," said Jasmine Heiss, director of In Our Backyards, which confronts incarceration issues for the New York-based Vera Institute for Justice. (She and I spoke over the phone.)

In 2021, a monthly average of 837 county citizens were locked up in our county jail, still awaiting trial, according to CALEB, a local coalition of faith, labor and community groups. These men and women are pretrial detainees: arrested and charged, yet legally innocent — constitutionally innocent before proven guilty — since they've never appeared in court.

Yes, a magistrate already set a cash bail amount for their release, but they remain behind bars.

Why?

"A significant number of those people are just too poor to pay the money bail set in their case," said Heiss.

Often, they are the most vulnerable of Hamilton County: sick, mentally ill, unhoused, poor.

By remaining behind bars, their instability becomes even worse.

"That leaves people with two options," Heiss said.

Option one: citizens pay a bondsman a percentage of the bail amount. They are released, but that money is never returned, even if their case is dismissed or they're found innocent. To pay this bond, money is scraped together, possibly erasing an already-small savings account. An insecure family now becomes even more so.

Option two?

"They stay in jail because no one can come up with the money," Heiss said.

Their court date may be weeks or months away. This is how things unravel: jobs, custody of children, apartments and homes — all lost as rent and bills go unpaid. (Locally, women are being locked up at faster rates than men, CALEB said.)

Enter the temptation of the plea deal. Prosecutors may offer a reduced sentence or time served in return for freedom if the pretrial detainee admits his or her guilt ... even if he or she is innocent.

"It can be very tempting after they've lost a month, three months, six months of their lives, to plead to time served, go on probation, do a short sentence," she said. "Anything is better."

Heiss said the vast majority of cases are resolved by a plea deal.

"In some cases, more than 90%," said Heiss.

In 2018, the Hamilton County Bail Fund was created to address this. Relying on donations, the fund posts bail for qualifying pretrial detainees who would otherwise not be able to afford it. According to community organizer Allen Shropshire, the Fund has posted bonds for 189 county residents — including 129 in 2021 alone — spending a total of more than $476,000.

Approximately 80% of bail fund recipients appear in court on their appointed day. Nationally, Heiss said, the trend is similar.

On Thursday, April 28, CALEB will host a community presentation on ending the cash bail system in Hamilton County. Free and open to the public, the event begins at 6:30 pm at The Camp House at 806 East 12th St.

Heiss, whose Vera fact sheet on Hamilton County incarceration trends is available at calebcha.org, said there are other solutions.

Like signature bonds, which aren't based on money. Home detention. Release people on their own recognizance. Sending people court reminders, educating them on the process.

Above all, judges can make individual decisions on bail amounts for each citizen based on his or her financial reality.

The pervasive use of cash bail doesn't have to exist.

In 1990, judges issued cash bail for fewer than one-third of all Tennesseans facing felony charges, Heiss said.

Yet, by 2020, cash bail was set in more than 80% of cases in Tennessee General Sessions courts, Heiss said. This includes both felony and misdemeanor cases.

"Tennessee law says in its constitution that the most onerous form of bond is not supposed to be the default response," Heiss said.

In 2019, Hamilton County spent more than $30 million on its jail, roughly 16% of the county budget, Heiss said.

"That boils down to about $57 per day for everyone sitting behind bars. There are immediate opportunities to reduce county spending by reducing jail population. A 20% reduction in the local jail population would probably produce more than $3 million in annual savings," she stated.

End our county's damaging and unconstitutional cash bail system.

David Cook writes a Sunday column and can be reached at dcook@timesfreepress.com.

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