Nashville's Nonprofit Bail Fund Argues To Keep Freeing People From Jail | Nashville Public Radio

Nashville's Nonprofit Bail Fund Argues To Keep Freeing People From Jail

Jul 18, 2019

The Nashville Community Bail Fund asked a panel of judges yesterday to reconsider an order that would jeopardize the group’s ability to function.

The nonprofit has had special permission to post bail for those who can’t afford it. But the group is now facing pushback from the Court.

The nonprofit has freed more than 700 people since it launched in 2016.

Here’s how it works: When someone is arrested in Davidson County and can't afford bail, the Nashville Community Bail Fund often covers the cost, using money from donors. Then, when that person shows up for court, the money is reimbursed and used toward someone else's bail. The group calls it a revolving door of funding.

But in April, judges decided the group should be responsible not just for bail, but also for court fines and fees. They worried the group wasn’t going as far as traditional bond companies to make sure participants showed up for their court dates once they’d been released.

And unlike friends or families members who might bail someone out of jail, judges wondered if bail fund staff could build close enough relationships with participants to keep track of their whereabouts.

But the track record is strong. Of the hundreds of individuals they’ve bailed out, about 80% are in good standing with the court. And as of May of this year, only 46 of its participants had failed to appear in court, according to an affidavit the organization submitted to the Court.

“Folks are trying to figure out who we are, because we’re changing the dynamic of what has long been an uncontested industry here,” says board member Davie Tucker Jr.

Tucker says requiring the bail fund to cover all court debts would result in a "slow death."

At a hearing Thursday, the organization's lawyer Angie Bergman said those expenses could be extensive. “Those fines, fees and costs would be far and away above what we are actually paying in bail," she said. "It would reduce the amount that the bail fund is getting back by about 30 to 40%.”

Bail, Plus A Support System

Criminal justice reform advocates started the organization three years ago to help low-income defendants, with bails of $5,000 or less, who might otherwise spend months in jail before they’d even been found guilty of a crime.

But Rahim Buford, manager of the Nashville Community Bail Fund, says it’s about more than just getting people out of jail.

“We want to know who you are, how we can help you and what we can do to make sure that you have a reasonable chance to fight your case while you are free,” he says.

Buford says the group is serving a population that would otherwise fall through the cracks, and that they’ve been successful.

And Buford doesn’t think the Nashville Community Bail Fund will go away, even if the group loses its court battle. He hopes donors will help with the added expenses.

“We’re not doing it because the judges say we can," he says. "We’re doing it because this is what we know is right.”

At Thursday's hearing, Judge Steve Dozier said he doesn’t want to shut the organization down. But the Court wants more time to decide how to regulate a group that’s shaking up cash bail in Tennessee.

Samantha Max is a Report for America corps member.