Shelby County bail method called “unconstitutional” by human rights organizations

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Several human rights organizations have called on Shelby County to end its discriminatory bail policies based on wealth.

The organizations are the American Civil Liberties Union, the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee, Just City, and The Wharton Law Firm.

The organizations sent a letter to numerous Shelby County judicial and government officials, citing that the current method is a violation of constitutional and statutory rights, according to a release from the ACLU.

“Jailing people simply due to their inability to afford a sum of money is unconstitutional and harmful public policy. Shelby County officials should embrace this opportunity to remedy the county’s discriminatory, wealth-based detention practices. We would rather see smart systems fixes now than be forced to bring these issues to court,” Andrea Woods, staff attorney with the ACLU’s Criminal Law Reform Project said.

Money bail is only used as a last resort if other options are deemed insufficient, to ensure that someone shows up for their trial, according to Tennessee law.

The United States Constitution also requires courts to hold bail hearings within a reasonable period after an arrest, with an attorney present, and to consider particular circumstances, such as a person’s ability to pay.

In Shelby County, a person can be held without a bail hearing for weeks or longer, and the ability to pay is not taken into account when bail is set, leaving those who cannot afford to pay detained indefinitely, while those who face the same charges but can afford to pay money bail are released.

The letter urged the county to ensure that those arrested receive fair treatment.

“Shelby County keeps hundreds of people locked in jail every day without making any attempt to evaluate if they can afford the bail they were assigned, creating a wealth-based detention system that disproportionately harms limited income, Black and disabled people. A justice system that only treats people fairly if they have money isn’t about ‘justice’ at all,” Hedy Weinberg, ACLU-TN executive director said.

Detention for even a few days can have major implications, including job, housing, education, health care, and child custody losses, according to the release.

“Because of this community’s dependence on money bail, the Shelby County Jail is full of people who cannot pay for their freedom. There are proven alternatives to this counterproductive system – tools and policies that have worked in other cities just like Memphis to reduce crime, save money and help people. These methods work, but they require leadership. Today, we are inviting Shelby County leaders to join us for a long-overdue conversation about safe and effective alternatives to the money bail system. We hope they’ll join us,” stated Josh Spickler, executive director of Just City.

Shelby County spent over $139 million on its two correctional facilities in 2019, accounting for 31% of the entire county budget, the ACLU said.