Two months ago, the long-overcrowded Madison County Criminal Justice Complex in west Tennessee held up to 500 incarcerated people on any given day.
By early this month, its daily population had dropped to 383.
The reduction was due in part to a statewide advisory from the Tennessee Supreme Court encouraging a reduction in jail populations during the coronavirus pandemic.
“We are trying to avert what could become an unprecedented public health catastrophe of biblical proportions,” Haywood County Circuit Court Judge Clayburn Peeples wrote in a statement to the Jackson Sun.
The order does not force judges to release inmates against their best judgement. Each presiding judge is tasked with setting their own guidelines for the courts within their counties.
While each judge retains ultimate authority over their cases, the Court encourages consideration of release for individuals who are incarcerated with low-level, nonviolent crimes who might otherwise be unable to afford bond.
Across the state, concern over the spread of the virus has prompted cooperation between local judges, district attorneys and law enforcement to reduce bonds, release some inmates earlier, and cut the number of arrests for nonviolent misdemeanor offenders.
That extends to even rural areas of the state. Around 14 inmates from Haywood County Jail — about 10 percent of the jail’s total population — have been released since the pandemic began making its way to rural West Tennessee.
“I thought, what sense does it make to keep someone (in jail) … (when) the reason they’re in here is because they’re indigent and they can’t make a small bond?” said Haywood County General Sessions Judge Roland Reid.
Reid said he was worried about the health of corrections officers as well as inmates.
“It’s really scary, thinking about the jail personnel on the front line…and trying to make sure that they keep exposure to that virus at a minimum to keep it out of our jail population, which would be devastating,” he said.
Courts across the state are already limiting in-person hearings to only those most necessary: emergency hearings involving threats to personal safety and hearings guaranteed by civil rights, including arraignments.
The state left jails free to craft their own responses and precautions to address the outbreak. Most West Tennessee jails discontinued in-person visits and volunteer services, and some began screening arrestees for illness upon arrival.
Jail populations are more likely to be immune-compromised, making them more vulnerable to contract COVID-19 and suffer serious, potentially life-threatening symptoms. And because jails tend to have quick turnover, there is greater risk that an individual could contract COVID-19 inside a correctional facility and spread the disease to others upon release, according to Peeples.
But the threat of disease has also prompted a rethinking of the money bond system, as well as the fines and fees, that hit hardest at low-income justice-involved individuals.
Most of the released arrestees were charged with contempt of court for failure to pay child support, or misdemeanor violations of probation with no new charges. They couldn’t afford bond.
For probation violations based solely on technical infractions (failing to pay fines or fees, failure of a drug screen, or absconding from supervision for less than four months), Peeples has recommended judges consider setting bond at $0.
In Madison County, judges are considering setting bonds or releasing people without bond for certain technical violations of probation.
Poverty and Pretrial Incarceration
Criminal justice reform advocates have long argued for greater consideration of poverty in pre-trial incarceration.
“In addition to the medically vulnerable, release should be considered for the thousands of people in Tennessee’s jails who have not even been convicted of a crime but who are behind bars simply because they are too poor to post bail,” ACLU of Tennessee Executive Director Hedy Weinberg wrote in a statement.
“…We commend those taking steps to reduce Tennessee’s prison and jail population during this challenging time. The steps they are taking now will help increase public health and safety in the long run for all of us.”
Reid said his court typically sees several cases with people charged with driving on a revoked or suspended license. He’s had a long-standing policy that those cases be dismissed if the defendant gets their license.
Now, Reid has asked local law enforcement to issue citations instead of arrests unless the infraction carries a mandatory sentence, like a DUI.
“Often times, what I see as a judge is people (driving on a revoked or suspended license) because they do not have the resources to pay off some of the back fines and costs,” Reid said.
In Henderson County, General Sessions Court Judge Steve Beal has temporarily stopped requiring some people who are charged with driving on a revoked license to make bond.
“If no alcohol was involved and there were no injuries or anything … and (the revoked or suspended license) wasn’t for a DUI or a vehicular homicide, them I’m releasing those folks (on their own reconnaissance),” Beal said.
Fines and Fees in the Time of Coronavirus
Several states, including Georgia, Idaho and Louisiana, have suspended scheduled payments of court-imposed fines and fees or extended deadlines for payments and hearings, according to a Fines and Fees Justice Center tracker.
The center issued multiple recommendations to state and local courts for minimizing impact of the COVID-19 crisis, including suspension of fee collection and paused enforcement for warrants issued for unpaid fees or failure to appear at fines and fees hearings.
“Right now, the last thing that any family should worry about is paying off court debt,” Fines and Fees Justice Center Co-Director Joanna Weiss said.
“There are a lot of people who are losing their jobs, that are at the risk of losing their homes, and they also have to worry about keeping themselves and their families safe and healthy. That needs to be their first priority. Fines and fees, frankly, should be their last.”
How fines and fees are handled in Tennessee varies by court, though court costs and taxes are set by statute and some charges have mandatory minimum fines. In some cases, judges can waive costs if they determine that a defendant is unable to pay.
In Madison County, people charged with violations of probation based on failure to pay are usually cited into court rather than arrested. Those who are arrested usually have an accompanying infraction, like new criminal charges, drug issues or failure to attend probation meetings.
Madison County DA Jody Pickens, who oversees prosecution in Chester, Henderson and Madison counties, said at least one local judge has suspended bench warrants for those who fail to appear to pay fines and costs “until this emergency passes.”
Weiss encourages local courts to clearly communicate any changes they make to fines and fees policies so people feel they can access what they need during the national emergency without fear of being arrested.
“Judges should be looking at anything where someone’s poverty is landing them in (jail), and that should never be the case,” Weiss said.
Will the Changes Last?
These practices are unparalleled in Tennessee’s recent legal history, but it’s unclear how long the guidelines will be in effect.
Peeples said the COVID-19 crisis simply adds another factor that must be considered in bail and release decisions for those with minor, nonviolent offenses. He said he hopes the public will understand the courts’ decisions.
“The measures included in the order are not by any measure a ‘good’ solution, but sometimes the best solution available is still a bad one,” Peeples wrote.
Pickens said he believes the people who are now being recommended for release had justified sentences based on their case and criminal history, but COVID-19 added another factor to the equation.
After the crisis passes, he said, he believes the justice system will return to the original criteria used to determine who is incarcerated, and for how long.
The same may be true with bonds, he added. Courts already consider a defendant’s ability to make bond alongside their criminal history, the nature of their offense and the likelihood they will flee.
“They’ll continue to set bonds at an amount they feel is appropriate, without the added consideration that we’re in the throes of a pandemic,” Pickens said.
Cassandra Stephenson, a 2019 John Jay/Arnold Ventures Justice Reporting Fellow, is a staff writer for The Jackson Sun. This is a condensed and slightly edited version of a story posted earlier this month. The complete version can be accessed here. Cassandra can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at (731) 694-7261. Follow Cassandra on Twitter at @CStephenson731.