Legislation aimed at reducing pre-trial detention

Robert Houk • Mar 21, 2019 at 12:00 AM

The Tennessee Senate is scheduled to debate a bill on the floor today that proponents say will reduce the number of pre-trial detainees held in local jails for low-level offenses.

The legislation — SB0587 sponsored by state Sen. Jon Lundberg, R-Bristol — is one of two bills pending in the state General Assembly aimed at reducing the burden on local jails to house non-violent offenders who are waiting to be heard in court on a misdemeanor charge. Washington County commissioners will vote on a resolution Monday night endorsing passage of both bills.

Lundberg said his amended legislation would allow law enforcement officers to issue citations instead of arresting defendants charged with specific non-violent crimes. The bill removes what proponents say is a vague and difficult burden on officers to determine if the offender will show up for their court date before issuing a citation.

He said some of those currently arrested for such non-violent charges are unable to make bond, which means they may spend days or even weeks in county jails awaiting their court dates. And in some cases, the charges are later dropped, or the defendants are sentenced to time already served.

“We have 5,285 people locked up in jails in Tennessee waiting for their misdemeanor cases to be heard,” the senator said Wednesday. “This is not good policy, and it’s not making us any safer.”

In the meantime, Lundberg said county and state taxpayers are being asked to foot the bill for those detention costs. State officials say half of the inmates now being held in county jails in Tennessee are pre-trial detainees.

“It’s a huge burden for our counties,” Lundberg said. “It costs local taxpayers approximately $39 a day to house someone in the local jail.”

He said pre-trial detainees miss work and are unable to support their families. Some even lose their jobs because of the missed time.

Washington County Commissioner Kent Harris said it “doesn’t seem right” for low-level offenders “who don’t have money to be stuck in jail.” He said it is also a burden on already crowded local jails.

That’s why Harris said he and other members of the county’s Public Safety Committee are asking their colleagues to approve a resolution Monday backing the passage of Lundberg’s bill, as well as its companion HB0715 now in a House subcommittee. The resolution also asks the General Assembly to approve SB0409/HB1131, which creates a “rebuttable presumption for any person charged with a expungeable offense who does not already have a criminal record to be released on his or her own recognizance.”

That bill, which is sponsored by state Sen. John Stevens, R-Huntingdon, would allow defendants who are not considered to be a flight risk or threat to public safety to continue working while they await trial.

Harris, who is a former sheriff of Unicoi County, said he was made aware of the pre-trial justice reforms while serving as a member of the Criminal Justice Committee of the Tennessee County Services Association. He said both measures can prevent “putting people into deeper trouble.”

Meanwhile, officials with the Tennessee Association of Professional Bail Agents released a statement Wednesday defending the current pre-trial bail system.

“Supporters of the legislation are misled in the belief that the creation of a government-operated system would reduce the number of individuals incarcerated before his or her trial, particularly offenders who are unable to post bail,” said J.R. Henderson, president of the TAPBA. “The reason why any person is in jail is not because he or she is poor, but because he or she is accused of a crime based on probable cause determined by a law enforcement officer.

“Courts and police officers already have the discretion to release a defendant. They should not lose that discretion based on inaccurate facts surrounding this legislation.”