Tennessee sheriff must stop jailing some poor offenders

February 14, 2019

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — A federal judge on Thursday ordered a Tennessee sheriff to stop jailing some people simply because they can’t afford bail.

The ruling in U.S. District Court in Nashville pertains to misdemeanor offenders in Giles County who are arrested for probation violations and given a predetermined bail amount without consideration of their ability to pay.

In his ruling, Judge William Campbell Jr. cites the case of a man who was held for 22 days before his first in-court appearance because he could not afford to pay a $500 cash bond. Another person was detained 21 days when he could not afford a $210 cash bond.

“Detention of these arrestees, who are otherwise deemed eligible for release, solely due to the inability to pay the secured bail amount on the arrest warrant can result in loss of work, separation from family, undue pressure to plead guilty, and other negative consequences,” Campbell writes.

Campbell’s order prohibits Giles County officials from jailing misdemeanor offenders accused of violating probation unless a judge first considers whether cash bail is necessary and whether the offender can pay it.

The issue is part of a larger lawsuit and the order is only temporary while that suit is being decided. The lawsuit accuses the county and for-profit probation companies of using the threat of jail and extended probation to squeeze money out of indigent misdemeanor offenders.

The plaintiffs are five women who claim their probation was so onerous that they sold their possessions and diverted money needed for food, utilities, medicine and rent to pay the fees charged by the probation companies in addition to their court costs. Lead plaintiff Karen McNeil became homeless while struggling to pay probation and court debt, the lawsuit claims.

Similar issues have been raised in recent years in other jurisdictions around the country.