Press Release: Nashville and Davidson County Tennessee Take First Steps to Reform Money Bail
Nashville, Tennessee - On July 30th, 2018 The Office for Civil Rights (OCR) Office of Justice Programs (OJP), a branch of the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), closed a complaint filed by Equal Justice Under Law, a civil rights non-profit, alleging, among other claims, that the pretrial bail practices of Nashville and Davidson County, Tennessee, impermissibly discriminate against African Americans.
Specifically, the complaint alleges that the Twentieth Judicial District’s practice of requiring defendants to post secured money bail as a pretrial condition of release had a discriminatory effect on African Americans because they are disproportionately detained in jail prior to trial.
In a historic act, the Twentieth District decided to adopt changes to its pretrial bail program, certifying to comply with all federal nondiscrimination requirements. In April of 2018, the District began using a risk-assessment tool that it developed along with the Crime and Justice Institute (CJI) to aid judicial officers in making pretrial release decisions. Pretrial risk-assessment tools use case information to identify factors that may affect pretrial outcomes, such as re-arrest and failure to appear in court.
At the time the EJUL filed its administrative Complaint with the OCR, Twentieth Judicial District of Tennessee officers weighed the criteria mandated by Tennessee law when deciding whether to release defendants prior to trial. While Davidson County did not use a fixed schedule when determining the amount of bail imposed on defendants, the vast majority of them had to post some form of secured money bail as a condition of release before trial.
This comes amidst nationwide efforts to reform money bail systems to alternative assessment models.
In a progress move, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., recently introduced legislation to end the "debtor prison" system, saying it disproportionately impacts minorities and costs the U.S. $14 billion each year to lock up people who haven't been convicted.
The use of a race-neutral, risk-based system to help inform pretrial and detention decision-making is a great achievement for safeguarding individuals and for complying with civil rights obligations going forward. This new validation process also offers Davidson County the opportunity to examine, in light of the substantial personal liberty interests at stake in a criminal prosecution prior to a finding of guilt, whether its practices meet legitimate pretrial objectives while minimizing any potential discriminatory impact. The Department of Justice has retained the right to evaluate and take additional action to ensure that Davidson County complies with federal civil rights laws in its pretrial bail system.
The Twentieth District’s reforms come amidst nationwide efforts to reform money bail systems by using risk-based assessments and pretrial service agencies instead of money to determine which defendants are released prior to trial and comes on the coattails of Jefferson County, Alabama’s historic Resolution Agreement made this past April - the first of its kind negotiated by the DOJ on behalf of Equal Justice Under Law.
The Department of Justice is currently investigating similar complaints of pretrial racial discrimination filed by Equal Justice Under Law against numerous counties across the nation. Read the full closure here.