Shelby County Pretrial System Under Scrutiny, Calls for Reform
Monday, December 6, 2021
MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- Legal advocacy groups in Tennessee have asked Shelby County Court officials to change their bail and pretrial detention practices, or face a lawsuit about their constitutionality.
Andrea Woods, staff attorney for the Criminal Law Reform Project at the ACLU, explained under Shelby County's current system, people who cannot afford to pay their bail can be jailed indefinitely, even if they are not a flight or safety risk.
"The person may not even learn what their bail amount is unless they ask," Woods observed. "The legal processes don't address their bond, don't provide them the opportunity to seek release; and it can be days or weeks before they have a lawyer who can try to get them out, if they can't afford their bail."
The ACLU of Tennessee, along with the Wharton Firm and Memphis nonprofit Just City have asked the court in writing to ensure a person's financial circumstances are examined prior to any bail hearing, among other reforms.
Groups like Tennessee Voices for Victims argue loosening bail polices could pose a safety threat to communities. Shelby County District Attorney General Amy Weirich had said she is willing to discuss the issue.
Josh Spickler, executive director of the group Just City, pointed out Shelby County's is not the only Tennessee court to come under scrutiny for its bail practices. He noted last year, a federal judge ruled Hamblen County's cash bail practices violated constitutional rights.
"The reasons that we keep people in a jail are really only twofold," Spickler noted. "Are they a risk of not returning to court, and are they a risk to the safety of the community? When you put money into that equation, it can quickly result in what we have here in Shelby County, which is a jail full of poor people."
Spickler stressed other types of releases, such as unsecured bonds, still hold people accountable. However, he acknowledged the system can fail victims. He cited a recent case in Waukesha, Wisconsin, in which a person with a history of violent crime had been released on a relatively low bail amount when he killed six people and injured dozens of others at a Christmas parade.
"But I think the key takeaway there is that this is an outlier," Spickler cautioned. "It is a very rare event. We do have some data about people who are accused of crimes while out on bail, and those are tiny."
According to the Vera Institute, in 2019, Shelby County spent nearly $139 million, more than 30% of the county's budget, on its two jail facilities.
get more stories like this via email
Examples of proposed policies and candidates tied to false claims of election fraud have spread to Minnesota, and a new national report found the …
New Mexico continues to battle the largest wildfires in its history, and other states including Nevada, along with parts of Arizona and Colorado…
A new museum exhibition in Baltimore opening to the public today aims to tell the story of Maryland's fight for civil rights, both in the past and …
Virginia's food banks are facing a perfect storm of issues. High inflation for everyday goods is driving up food costs for lower-income families…
Health and Wellness
Vice President Kamala Harris met with abortion providers from Missouri and other restrictive states Thursday to consider ways the Biden administration…
Health and Wellness
Today is National Bike to Work Day, and while it may sound "easier said than done," it may not be as daunting as you think. Enthusiasts said the …
Connecticut is celebrating its first estuary reserve, which will help identify environmental threats to waterways and natural resources. …
Health and Wellness
A new report urges states to take steps to minimize Medicaid coverage loss when the state of emergency for the pandemic comes to an end. COVID …