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Southern Poverty Law Center and Civil Rights Corps warn Knox County judges that their bail hearings continue to violate the federal Constitution

KNOXVILLE, Tenn., – The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) and Civil Rights Corps (CRC) have informed judges, the sheriff, public defender, and other officials in Knox County that efforts to reform the County’s pretrial practices to comply with state and federal law have been insufficient. 

SPLC and CRC have spent the last three years investigating Knox County bail practices. A first letter to Knox County officials went out in April 2021 that documented an investigation that included observing multiple initial appearances, arraignments, and preliminary hearings in Knox County. It determined that the County’s bail practices violate state and federal law and Knox County officials were asked to hold constitutional bail hearings and stop jailing people just because they couldn’t afford bail. In July—and in response to the letter—the County began holding bail hearings with counsel within 48 hours of arrest for most arrestees.  

The follow-up letter, which went out Wednesday, January 19, finds that while a step in the right direction, the changes in practice continue to violate federal constitutional law because prosecutors are not required to provide evidence that a person needs to be in jail before trial. Judges fail to meaningfully consider other alternatives to jail, and often do not even know whether a person can afford to pay bail.   The letter urges the judges to adopt a local rule that would provide clear guidance to defendants, victims, and the public about what legal standards govern bail hearings after finding that judges apply different standards, and everyone involved appears to have a different understanding about the law.  

In 2020, a federal judge enjoined neighboring Hamblen County, Tennessee after it found that the sheriff unconstitutionally detained people unable to pay secured money bail. CRC presented evidence in that case that requiring people to pay money bail does not make communities safer or come back to court. That same evidence shows that many people remain in jail at taxpayer expense only because they cannot afford to buy their way out of jail and may lose their jobs, custody of their children, or plead guilty just to get out of jail even when they are not guilty.   

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

“In lawsuit after lawsuit, federal judges have said that it is unconstitutional to hold people in jail before trial just because they cannot pay for their freedom. Nevertheless, Knox County judges continue to jail people even when prosecutors present no evidence that a person needs to be in jail and could safely be released to their families. Judges must stop jailing people simply because they are poor and without following the correct procedures required by the U.S. Constitution.” 

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

“Judges in Knox County continue to set unaffordable money bail amounts unmoored to any concern with public safety or flight risk, violating the Constitution. While it is great that the judges are holding more timely bail hearings, they need to establish and adhere to clear, constitutional standards for these hearings. No one should be denied pretrial liberty just because they can’t afford their bail.” 

A copy of the letter can be read here.  The original letter sent in April 2021 can be read here