Human Rights Organizations Call Out Tennessee County for Violating Rights of Accused

By Helen Greenia

MEMPHIS, TN — Human rights organizations sent letters to Shelby County officials last week, demanding Shelby County, TN stop violating the rights of those who have been arrested, according to a statement by the ACLU.

The organizations that signed onto the letter include American Civil Liberties Union, the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee, Just City, and The Wharton Law Firm.

The letters demand individuals receive bail hearings within 24 hours after arrest, access to counsel, a chance to review their financial situation before applying money bail to their case, and a policy that urges money bail should only be implemented if all else fails.

According to Tennessee law, judges are supposed to use money bail as a last resort to ensure a defendant shows up to their trial. The U.S. constitution requires judges to take an individual’s ability to pay into account.

Andrea Woods, staff attorney with the ACLU stated, “Jailing people simply due to their inability to afford a sum of money is unconstitutional and poor 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.”

Shelby County allows an individual to be detained for weeks without receiving a bail hearing with counsel. The county does not take into account whether the person can afford to pay the bail, and as a result, the person is left detained for an unknown period of time. Meanwhile, those who are able to pay bail are left walking free until trial.

ACLU-TN executive, Hedy Weinberg, stated, “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.”

According to ACLU, the consequences of detainment can result in a loss of employment, child custody, housing, education, or healthcare. Being detained for just a few days can seriously impact a person’s life, said the ACLU, noting money bail has not been proven to increase court appearances at trial or help the public safety.

Josh Spickler, executive director of Just City stated, “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.”

Spickler added, “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.”

Organizations believe Shelby County’s practices are discriminatory and only based on wealth. The letters urge the county to treat those who have been arrested fairly.

About The Author

Helen is from Orange County, California. She is a junior at UCLA majoring in English with the hopes of pursuing law school after she obtains her bachelor's degree.

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