Shelby County District Attorney-elect Steve Mulroy with civil rights leader, Rev. William Barber, at a March event to support fired Starbucks workers. (Photo: SteveMulroyforDA.com)
Shelby County District Attorney-elect Steve Mulroy joined leaders from the American Civil Liberties Union-Tennessee on Thursday to announce reform to Shelby County’s current money bail system.
On Thursday, a press conference hosted by the ACLU detailed that after extended negotiations with county officials, judges and criminal-justice advocates, Shelby County will be implementing a complete overhaul of their current bail system by February 2023
“When I gave my victory speech on election night, I talked about how I wanted to create transformative reform in the criminal justice system and make Shelby County’s justice system a model for the nation,” said Mulroy, who beat incumbent Amy Weirich on Aug. 4.
“I think if we make the system fairer, and we restore public confidence in the fairness of our system, then we can get the community to cooperate with law enforcement in a way that hasn’t been in recent years, that community cooperation with law enforcement is key to reducing violent crime,” he said.
Shelby County’s current pretrial system allows an accused person to be held for weeks or longer without a bail hearing without factoring that person’s ability to afford the bail set, potentially keeping them detained indefinitely. The system also doesn’t consider whether the accused is a flight risk and the severity of their charges, a system that unfairly benefits those with a higher ability to pay bail, said advocates.
“There is a tremendous cost to incarcerating too many people, especially those who don’t need to be in jail, particularly for long periods of time. It’s one of Shelby County’s highest expenditures,” said Andrea Woods, ACLU staff attorney.
I think if we make the system fairer, and we restore public confidence in the fairness of our system, then we can get the community to cooperate with law enforcement in a way that hasn’t been in recent years.
– Steve Mulroy, Shelby County District Attorney-elect
“We know from empirical research that even 24 hours in jail can cost tremendous downstream consequences. Of course that would be obvious. Someone can’t be with their children, can’t work, all of those carry a cost, and having overcrowded jails where people face dire circumstances is a tremendous social cost,” she added.
Under Tennessee law enacted in 1978, judges are required to treat money bail as a last resort and to be imposed only if other less restrictive conditions are deemed insufficient to ensure someone appears for their trial. Federal law also requires courts to hold bail hearings within a reasonable time of arrest, to include counsel and to take individual circumstances into account. Under these laws, Shelby County’s existing pretrial system is unconstitutional, said advocates.
Shelby County will institute individualized bail hearings with counsel to be held no later than three days after their arrest, which will include a rapid-release screening, and consider a person’s financial circumstances prior to any decision before setting bail.
“Those improvements mean that commissioners are going to make an intentional decision quickly, and we anticipate a lot of people will be appropriately released within mere hours of arrest, but for people that need a closer look, there will be this bail hearing,” said Wood.
Shelby County will also implement a bail hearing courtroom that will be open to the public and guarantee people will have counsel if they can’t afford one.
“And that has not happened consistently with the folks we bail out,” said Shahidah Jones, spokesperson for the Memphis chapter of the Black Lives Matter. “Sometimes it’s months and months, and sometimes they are denied because there has not been a way to properly identify whether or not they can afford a lawyer.”
In order to make the changes successful, Shelby County officials will send text message reminders for court dates, which allows people time to take off work and secure transportation.
“We’re thankful that there’s going to be a ongoing conversation about how to support people released to be successful, because research shows, and evidence in the real world shows, that most people if given the chance to keep their families and work life, will be incredibly successful if released from jail.
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