Allen Shropshire of CALEB Aims to Make the Justice System More Just through the Hamilton County Community Bail Fund
We rely on our justice system to maintain safety and order by enforcing our laws. When a crime is committed, perpetrators are arrested, taken to jail, and assigned a price for their freedom – a bond. If you can post bail, you’re free to leave prison until your day in court. If you cannot pay the bond, you stay in jail.
In Chattanooga, freedom is a luxury many cannot afford. Every month 860 people, on average, are in Silverdale Detention Center or the Hamilton County Jail awaiting trial. That means that more than 50% of the people in our local jails at any given moment are presumed innocent.
Encounters with the justice system all too frequently derail the lives of low-income people and people of color. Just living in a low-income neighborhood – or being black – in Chattanooga means you are more likely to be arrested. And without being convicted of any crime, women and men who cannot pay bail are forced to stay in jail before they are able to access their right to due process.
Spending days or even weeks in jail puts pretrial detainees at risk of losing everything – their job, their house, their car, their children, even their right to a fair trial and legal counsel. Life after prison also becomes more difficult, as securing full-time employment is elusive for people with a criminal history.
Inasmuch as cash bail is expensive for people who have been sent to jail, it’s also costly for Hamilton County taxpayers. The 2018 TN Jail Summary Reports show that detaining people pretrial costs Hamilton County taxpayers $1.7 million every month. That’s about $95,000 per day.
The system is broken. Cash bail favors the wealthy over the poor and strips people of their freedom and personal safety at great expense while reinforcing the broader racial and economic disparities in our community.
A New Approach
CALEB – Chattanoogans in Action for Love, Equality, and Benevolence asserts that personal wealth should not be the basis for determining if an individual, presumed innocent, is a flight risk or danger to the community. In an effort to make our justice system more just, they and others, including Benwood Foundation, have formed the Hamilton County Community Bail Fund, which pays bonds for eligible defendants so they can return to their lives while awaiting trial.
“The system is not right,” says Allen Shropshire, bail fund volunteer and green|spaces Empower Chattanooga Outreach Coordinator. “I know guys who have sat in jail for a $100 or $200 bail out. If they don’t have family that can help them, they’re stuck. This is the generational curse of people in poverty.”
Now, when a person in Hamilton County is brought to jail and cannot afford bail, they or their family can turn to the community bail fund for assistance. Individuals list community resources – family, friends, etc. – who can serve as references and CALEB volunteers determine if the person can be counted on to return on time for court. If qualified, the bail fund will pay 100 percent of the bond. When a person attends all their court dates or their cases are dismissed, the bail fund receives 100 percent of this money back and can use it to bail out someone else. The rate of people who appear in court is better than that expected with cash bail.
Recently Shropshire worked with a woman, seven months pregnant, being held in Silverdale Detention Center for failure to appear in court. She’d never received a notice to appear, and her bond was set at $1,500. A bail bondsman would charge $150 to post bond.
“They didn’t have the money – no one had it. She was separated from her family for a week and not receiving any prenatal care in prison,” Shropshire recounts.
The bail fund got her out of jail and back to her daughter and family.
“She was ecstatic,” he says.
As a community leader, Shropshire has made it his personal mission to spread the word about the bail fund. He doesn’t want people to suffer unnecessarily. Further, Shropshire is committed to advocating for people in the system because he recognizes that many innocent people opt for plea deals when unable to pay bail, a choice that can haunt them for the rest of their lives.
“People don’t know what they’re giving up when they accept a plea deal,” he explains. “A criminal record hinders your ability to get a full-time job, and often people sign away their rights without even knowing it. Once you’ve lost rights like the right to vote, it’s so hard to gain them back.”
Enough is Enough
Shropshire is no stranger to the Hamilton County justice system and the realities of navigating employment with prior convictions. He experienced the system first-hand in his twenties, served time for crimes committed, and later worked diligently to have his record expunged of false charges. He feels a responsibility to be a voice for people in the community and to advocate for a more just system.
He’s proud to have been part of bringing the Hamilton County Community Bail Fund to fruition and thankful it exists, but he also believes there’s much more work to be done to make our community a place where everyone regardless of neighborhood or color can thrive.
“I have a bold goal: End cash bail in Chattanooga and in Tennessee,” he says. “ A lot of people are profiting off of this and have been for years, decades, centuries. I’m tired of seeing the profit happen off of people. I want to see cash bail end and see community support for people who are in a revolving cycle of people getting locked up for little things – traffic stops, expired licenses. This has hindered generations of families who have been stuck. Once in the system it feels like you can never get out of if. True community harm comes from cash bail. When you lock up a person who has been working, they could lose their job…their household could be gone…their kids taken. This person has lost those things.”
To learn more about the history of mass incarceration in America, watch 13th on Netflix.