Pretrial Justice Reform FAQs
BY JUSTIN OWEN
What does SB409/HB1131 do?
The bill requires magistrates to document their findings in writing anytime they refuse to release a defendant on their own recognizance instead of imposing bail. Thus, if they determine that a defendant is a threat to public safety or flight risk, they will have to document their reason for making that determination.
Why is this important?
There are more than 5,200 Tennesseans sitting in jail awaiting trial for low-level misdemeanor offenses. This means they have not been convicted or even tried, but that they merely cannot afford bail. Some of these Tennesseans should indeed remain in jail until their trial because they are a threat to public safety, or they should be released on bail because they are a flight risk. However, many of them are neither, and should be released on their own recognizance pending trial.
Why shouldn’t everyone be issued bail?
Bail is designed to ensure that people show up on their court date. For many low-level, nonviolent offenders, bail is not necessary to ensure that they do so. Further, many low-income Tennesseans simply cannot afford their bail, and therefore sit in jail for months and months until their trial. This keeps them from working, going to school, taking care of their children, paying their bills, etc. Those who pose no threat to public safety or who are not a flight risk should be released on their own recognizance pending their trial.
What about victims?
This bill in no way prevents judges from keeping someone who is dangerous away from others, releasing them on bail to ensure that they show up for their day in court, or requiring them to be monitored while they are awaiting trial. It simply requires the magistrate to document their reasons in writing if they determine someone does not qualify to be released on their own recognizance.
How does this benefit taxpayers?
Statewide, Tennessee spends $206,000 every single day to house misdemeanants in jail until their trial. Many of these people should be out providing for their family because they are not a flight risk or threat to public safety. Encouraging judges to consider release on recognizance as the first option will save taxpayer money, while allowing us to use our limited jail space keeping those who are actually dangerous away from the public.