Hamilton County bail fund expands, seeks to pay 200 bonds in 2021

Tierra Hayes, Chattanooga Times Free Press, Tenn.
·5 min read

Mar. 21—Since its founding in 2018, the CALEB Hamilton County Community Bail Fund has paid the bails of 60 inmates in a quest to remove the financial barrier of cash bail.

But in 2021, the fund's organizers are setting expectations even higher. They want to help 200 people in one year.

CALEB, which stands for Chattanoogans in Action for Love, Equality and Benevolence, is an area faith-based nonprofit organization. Its bail fund pays for people's cash bail, a system where money is paid to release an individual from jail before a later court date and then funds are returned after court attendance.

The organization receives donations from the community and helps those with minor charges who don't have the financial means to be released.

So far, more than half a million dollars has been raised.

"People shouldn't be in custody merely because they can't afford to get out," said Michael Gilliland, organizing director for CALEB. "If that's the only determining factor that's keeping people in jail, they shouldn't be there."

Earlier in the year, the heavily volunteer-run organization hired its first donor-funded bail fund manager, Dylan Gibbons, to oversee day-to-day operations.

"What we've previously done, coordinating and working with volunteers for this project, especially with the amount of community support that we've gotten, we felt it was necessary to take the next step and hire a full-time staff position to be able to better manage this process and really scale up our ability to affect change," Gilliland said.

In order to qualify for the bail fund, inmates must meet specific criteria including: — have a total bail amount of $5,000 or less — be a Hamilton County resident — have no domestic assault charges — have no pending charges due to a previous arrest

So far in 2021, the fund has paid the bails of five people, a total the organization said has been slowed by the pandemic and changes in communication protocols and systems with inmates after control of the local jails shifted from CoreCivic to the Hamilton County Sheriff's Office in late 2020.

In an email to the Times Free Press, sheriff's office spokesperson Matt Lea said new video and call systems have been fully installed in the downtown jail, and that the Silverdale facility is expected to follow in April. Inmates also can be reached by mail and through working with the office's staff members to schedule times.

Gibbons and Gilliland said while the transition period has altered communication to and from inmates for the fund, attorneys and family members alike, they are hopeful for the future and that numbers will pick up as awareness is raised through social media and other platforms.

Family and community members now are driving most referrals, and the bail fund uses a web program that searches records for eligible inmates.

In 2020, 63% of all people held in local jails on a monthly average were there pre-trial, many for an extended amount of time, costing taxpayers almost two million dollars and possibly costing those who are presumed innocent until a trial or hearing their jobs, according to the organization.

"Personal wealth should not be a barrier to freedom," Gibbons said. "I think we have to get away from the mentality that, you know, there are individuals that deserve to be in jail or that if you can't pay you, you know, you should just sit in jail for months on end while being alienated from your family and losing money because you can't work.

"I think we have to understand that the system is flawed. And the only way that the system can be changed is if communities stand up and demand that change."

In addition to helping people before trial through donations, Gibbons and Gilliland said a major goal of the fund is to simply no longer exist. In an ideal future, there would be no need for their services.

"The bail fund is a resource, right, but we don't want this to be a permanent thing," Gibbons said. "The work of ending cash bail is to create a systemic reality where the bail fund is no longer needed."

Gilliland said they are seeing the dismantling of aspects of cash bail already in different parts of the country.

"We don't have to imagine it, I mean it's happening all over the country, where cash bail is being challenged and taken out of systems, whether it's at a state level in places like New Jersey or Illinois or it's being done at local, county or municipal levels like Durham, North Carolina," he said.

"There is plenty of evidence that this works that releasing people without monetary restriction, actually, can lead to better outcomes," Gilliland said. "And it's something as simple as setting up a system of adequate and reliable reminders."

While he has only worked for the fund for a few months, Gibbons is grateful to be able to learn more about the justice system and bring change in the Chattanooga area.

"There's a feeling of hope that you get when you're part of an organization that seeks to change the way that our justice system operates, change the way that our communities are affected by the system, and improve that for future generations," he said. "It's amazing because you don't have to imagine a better future. You can create one."

For more information or to make a referral email dylan@calebcha.org, call 423-497-6975 or visit calebcha.org/bailfund.

Contact Tierra Hayes at thayes@timesfreepress.com.