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Southern Poverty Law Center and Civil Rights Corps threaten to sue Knox County over bail practices

KNOXVILLE, Tenn., -- The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) and the Civil Rights Corps (CRC) have informed judges, the sheriff, public defender, and other officials in Knox County that they are prepared to bring a lawsuit against them unless the County’s pretrial practices are changed to comply with state and federal law. 

SPLC and CRC have spent the last 2.5 years investigating Knox County bail practices. The investigation included observing multiple initial appearances, arraignments, and preliminary hearings in front of magistrates, prosecutors, public defenders, and General Sessions Court judges. After reviewing data and court transcripts and interviewing numerous magistrates, defense attorneys and community organizations, SPLC and CRC has concluded that the County’s bail practices violate state and federal law and are asking County officials to hold constitutional bail hearings and to stop jailing people pretrial simply because they can’t pay money bail. 

Knox County Judicial Magistrate Ray H. Jenkins made a similar assessment that the County’s bail practices are unconstitutional in a recent newspaper article. CRC previously obtained an injunction against the Hamblen County sheriff over the County’s bail practices, which are similar to the practices in Knox County. 

The following is a statement from Micah West, senior staff attorney for the Economic Justice Project at the Southern Poverty Law Center.

“In Knox County, hundreds of people who enjoy a constitutional presumption of innocence sit in jail every day because they don’t have the money to pay for bail. A 2019 report concluded that the jail would be operating at 250% of its capacity by 2043 unless practices changed. The jail’s size is driven—in large part—by the County’s pretrial practices: more than 75% of people in custody are in pretrial detention. It makes no sense, morally or fiscally, to keep so many people in cages simply because they cannot pay for their freedom.”

The following is a statement from Tara Mikkilineni, senior attorney at Civil Rights Corps

“The most worrisome aspect of Knox County’s bail practices is that they are so similar to the unconstitutional bail practices we have seen across Tennessee. Just up the road in Hamblen County, the judge and judicial commissioners routinely imposed unaffordable money bail amounts ー sometimes as high as $1 million. When judges make bail unaffordable, they are essentially detaining people who cannot pay for their freedom. We know that money bail has devastating impacts on individuals and communities, especially when it can take weeks, months, or even years before they can go to trial. Knox County’s bail practices stand in the way of pretrial liberty – Tennesseans deserve better.”

The letter to Knox County officials can be read here.