FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
September 8, 2021
Lindsay Kee, 615-320-7142
NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Today, the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee launched “DAs Report to You: A Campaign for District Attorney Transparency.” The goal of this multifaceted campaign is to educate Tennesseans about the power that their elected prosecutors have to shape the criminal legal system and incarceration rates in their communities, and to advocate for district attorney transparency and accountability.
“District attorneys are some of the most powerful actors in the criminal legal system. From decisions about charges to pretrial detention to plea bargaining to sentences, they wield tremendous influence – yet they are subject to very little oversight, transparency, or accountability,” said Hedy Weinberg, ACLU of Tennessee executive director. “With DA elections next year, we launched our campaign to educate Tennesseans about the significant role district attorneys play in locking up tens of thousands of people, leading to high incarceration rates, economic inequities, and racial disparities in Tennessee’s jails and prisons.”
District attorneys have discretion over charging and sentencing recommendations, bail and pretrial detention recommendations, access to treatment and diversion programs, decisions to charge young people as adults, and much more. They also oversee plea agreements, which are used to resolve approximately 90 to 95 percent of federal and state court cases.[i] Additionally, prosecutors have a strong influence at the state legislature. Between 2015 and 2018, 62% of the bills that prosecutors supported passed, compared to only 36% of the bills they opposed.[ii]
In Tennessee, district attorneys are elected for eight-year terms, one of the longest terms in the nation. In Tennessee’s last district attorney race in August 2014, 65 percent of district attorney races were uncontested. Only 22 percent of registered voters cast ballots in the district attorney races.[iii] Currently, all of Tennessee’s DAs are white. Only four are women. Tennessee’s next district attorney election is in 2022.
In an effort to promote transparency about district attorney practices, ACLU-TN sent each of Tennessee’s 31 district attorneys a survey to assess what information their office collects related to screening and charging, pretrial release, alternative sentencing, plea bargaining, and sentencing. Only one district attorney, Kenneth Baldwin (District 1), responded to the survey. We then sent out open records requests to the 30 other nonresponding DAs. To date, only two district attorneys, John W. Carney Jr. (District 19, until his recent retirement) and Jimmy B. Dunn (District 4), responded. We also received a single reply from the state attorney general’s office stating that other district attorneys are in the process of determining what, if any records, they have that are responsive to our request. We have not yet received any other information.
“Currently, district attorneys’ offices essentially operate in a ‘black box,’ as demonstrated by their silence in response to our inquiries about the kinds of data they collect,” said Helen Mrema, ACLU-TN criminal justice advocate. “Improving data collection will provide taxpayers with insights into these elected officials’ offices, leading to improved practices, fairer policies, more appropriate sentences, diminished racial disparities, and greater accountability overall.”
The campaign website includes an introduction to the role and function of district attorneys; an exploration of the specific powers DAs wield; descriptions of how DAs impact different communities, from women to people of color to LGBTQ people to rural communities and more; a tool that allows people to explore the types of decisions DAs make every day that impact the lives of thousands of people; an overview of prosecution during the pandemic; information on each district attorney in Tennessee; and an introduction to how DA elections work.
The ACLU of Tennessee is a non-partisan, statewide organization dedicated to promoting and protecting constitutional rights.
The “DAs Report to You” website can be found online at: https://www.aclu-tn.org/das-report-campaign-district-attorney-transparency/
[iii] https://sharetngov.tnsosfiles.com/sos/election/data/turnout/20140807.pdf; https://sos-tn-gov-files.s3.amazonaws.com/20140807_StateGeneralCounty.pdf