The city’s top prosecutor and top public defender don't agree on what bail reform might look like in Nashville. The two legal officials presented their views at a public forum this week.
Money bail has been a recurring topic for proponents of criminal justice reform who say it keeps poor citizens in jail longer than necessary, and recently some have singled out Davidson County for its bail policies.
When a person is arrested in Nashville, they're booked and sent to wait in a holding cell for their turn in “night court” — which is actually just a video conference with a judicial commissioner for a probable cause hearing, where he or she will later set an amount for bail.
That money will be held to compel the accused to come back for their trial. If they show up, the money will eventually be returned to the owner. If they're found guilty, the court has the right to subtract court costs and any fines from that amount before it issues a check back for the remainder.
In 2016, the average bail in misdemeanor arrests was about $5,000, said Dawn Deaner, Nashville’s top public defender. That’s why almost 60 percent of the close to 21,000 people charged with misdemeanor offenses last year had to sit in jail until their cases went in front of a judge.
But bail isn't the only way, Deaner said. Commissioners have a few other options. They could decide to release someone on their own recognizance with a promise to return to court, or via an unsecured bond, which serves as a "promise to pay" if they miss their court date. A supervised pre-trial program managed by the Sheriff's office has also been touted as a successful alternative.
But records from 2016 show that none of those options are invoked nearly as often as money bail.
“We think about the concept of presumption of innocence,” said Deaner. “When you are arrested you may be charged with a crime, but you are presumed innocent. And one of the biggest injustices we see for our clients is the inability to get out of jail pre-trial.”
Deaner said it doesn’t take more than a couple of days for people to lose their jobs. For a single parent or the head of a family, it can mean worrying about who’s watching their children or being able to put food on the table. That pressure, she said, can lead to accepting unfavorable plea bargains just to get out, because waiting to prove their innocence at trial could take months, or, in some cases, even years. She adds that there is no proof that keeping someone behind bars who is charged with a minor crime makes the city safer.
But District Attorney Glenn Funk pushed back.
“Ms. Deaner says there is no evidence this keeps victims safe. I would disagree with her,” says Funk. “If someone who has beaten, abused, strangled an intimate partner on a domestic violence case is released, then many times a victim is going to be victimized again.“
Funk said that the statistics presented by Deaner are skewed, adding that about one-third of the people who didn't make bail were charged with public intoxication and likely released within just 12 hours.
Of those who stayed longer, many were charged with domestic violence, a policy he makes no apologies for.
But Davidson County’s bail system has caught the attention of Civil Rights Corps, a national organization that has recently sued a number of municipalities across the U.S. with similar policies. A letter sent to the city’s top attorney earlier this year, obtained by WSMV, says the city has a "two-tiered system of justice" — and they plan to sue if changes aren’t made.