In Our Backyards: Money Bail in Warren County
Warren County Overview
Moving further east, our project now brings us to Warren County, located right in the center of Middle Tennessee, about halfway between Chattanooga and Nashville. Of the three counties we visited, Warren County, which is home to about 40,000 people, had the highest poverty rate, with almost 16% of the population living in poverty in 2019. In the United States, adults in poverty are three times more likely to be arrested than those who have higher incomes, and they are less likely to make bail than someone living above the poverty line.
The trend of skyrocketing rates of pretrial incarceration that we found in McMinn County continued in Warren. The rate of pretrial incarceration in Warren County has increased from 162 per 100,000 residents in 2000 to 638 per 100,000 residents in 2018. And, like other rural counties in Tennessee, the demographics of the incarcerated population reflect the racial inequities of the criminal justice system. Black people in Warren County only account for 3.8% of the population, but 6.6% of the jail population in the most recent years that these data points were available
During the COVID-19 crisis, overincarceration in Warren County continued, and in January of 2020, Warren County jail was at 105.2% capacity, with 42.0% of those detainees being held pre-trial. Of those being held at the jail, 31.4% were being held pre-trial for misdemeanor charges.
During our visits with people who worked on behalf of indigent clients in the rural court systems of Tennessee, many, including in Warren County, discussed clients who had survived hardships or trauma in their lives, and some mentioned their clients’ history with Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs). Essentially, ACEs indicate a difficult, tumultuous or emotionally volatile childhood, and can include, but are not limited to, abuse, neglect, caregiver mental illness, and incarceration of a parent.
Totaling the number of different types of adverse events an individual experiences in childhood yields that person’s ACE “score.” In Warren County, between 27.54% and 32.51% of residents have an ACE score of two or more. Advocates continue to work to understand how our childhood environments and experiences impact our outcomes as adults, particularly their impact on incarceration rates. According to one study, when community members have an ACE score of 4 or more, they are 20 times more likely to be incarcerated at some time in their lives. This means that preventative measures addressing factors that lead to higher ACE scores – like readily available mental health care or systems for educators and youth to report child abuse – may be able to help pre-emptively reduce mass incarceration rates, including pre-trial detention rates.
Whether they were recalling clients who had a history of adverse childhood experiences or those who worked, without documents, in one of the community’s many nurseries and struggled to navigate the criminal justice system, or remembering how medical debt had left their family unprepared for a brush with the bail system, the people we spoke to in Warren County reinforced the overwhelming hardships that people in rural communities face when they are not financially able to overcome the money bail system.
In Warren County, we spoke to:
- Debbie, a mother of five and county commissioner, who recalls how her teenage son’s brush with the law came close to wrecking his future, simply because her debt-ravaged family struggled to afford his bond; and
- John, the county public defender and life-long Warren County resident, who describes how his clients and neighbors navigate – or, more often, are not able to navigate – a criminal justice system that stacks the deck against people who don’t have money for bail.
“We were scared to death that our son was gonna be in jail for months on end. Once somebody sits in there for six months, they lose all hope. And it’s all for money.”
Privacy statement. This embed will serve content from youtube.com.
“I’d like to explain why I sound like this,” Deborah Evans says just moments after taking a seat in front of the camera and lights that have turned the living room of her McMinnville, Tennessee ranch home into a makeshift film studio.
She glances at the blinking red light of the video camera and shifts her weight in her seat, a little uncomfortable with the glare but certain about the words she chooses next. They are weighed carefully; it is important she says this before she can begin telling her family’s story.
“I had cancer 21 years ago, throat cancer. They did radiation, but it came back. Once cancer comes back, it spreads rapidly,” she explains, and gestures to a small, subtle scar hovering a few inches above her collarbone. “They had to actually take my vocal cords out. They used cartilage to replace them. So I always sound like I have a cold. I couldn’t even talk for at least a year; there was no sound at all, no guarantee I would ever talk again.”
Around this time, she continues, her family was hit with a second crisis: her husband was diagnosed with genetic coronary artery disease. She and her husband had both worked their entire lives and had built up their retirement, but financial fallout from the twin health emergencies was immediate and severe. Within months, medical expenses had wiped out their savings and depleted their credit. They both took out their 401(k)s to keep up with the mounting hospitals bills and buy groceries to feed their children. They began to discuss what they would do if they lost the family home.
It was at this moment of financial desperation, Debbie remembers, that the community stepped in and, as she describes it, saved her family. Meal trains, organized by parents from her daughter’s soccer team, were delivered to her door. Utility and cable bills were quietly taken care of by neighbors she’d known for years and some she’d never met. Bags of dog food were waiting on the steps of the back porch in the morning. And finally, the mortgage on their house, pooled by church groups from across the county, was paid in full for months in a row – a critical lifeline for her family.
She pauses, reflecting on the way the community rallied behind her family in their time of need. “I wanted to say all that,” she states carefully, “so you’d understand the financial situation we were in…. We were doing good until medical issues pulled the rug out from under us. That was 22 years ago when it started.”
Twenty-two years ago, on the Fourth of July. The nineteenth birthday of her oldest son, Sean.
Debbie still remembers coming back home from watching the fireworks with her husband and infant daughter and settling in for the evening while Sean (whom Debbie fondly describes as a hard-headed but big-hearted “firecracker” as a kid) stayed out to celebrate his birthday – something vague about a cookout in the woods with some buddies. She remembers clearly that she was carrying laundry down the hall when the phone rang.
It was Sean, her firecracker. He’d been arrested.
That cookout in the woods had never happened. On their way there, he and a couple of other teenaged friends had instead made the decision to swipe four plastic chairs, priced at $5 each, from the front of a Dollar General and attempt a quick getaway to their party in the woods. They hadn’t made it a mile down the road when the blue lights flashed behind them. Sean told her that the local police had tried unsuccessfully to talk the store manager out of pressing charges against the boys, but now he was spending the last hours of his birthday in an orange jumpsuit and handcuffs at the county jail, slapped with a misdemeanor shoplifting charge and a $5,000 bail looming over his head. Debbie couldn’t believe what she was hearing.
She remembers weeping at the sight of her son in chains that night, but she also remembers the sound of laughter: the laughter of the other boys arrested alongside Sean and the laughter of their parents, for whom the night was clearly just the beginning of what would one day be a funny story. They could laugh for one simple reason.
“They had the money,” she says.
Unlike herself and her husband, the other parents could make the $500 bond without hesitating, without checking the balance of their bank statement, without wondering if there was someone, anyone, they could call in the middle of the night to ask for a loan.
“Those other three boys didn’t have a worry in the world,” Debbie remembers. “They knew they were going home. They were laughing, joking. Their parents were bailing them out and they were just care-free kids, they didn’t have a care in the world. Because they had the money.”
For a wealthy or well-to-do family, the $500 fee to release their son was negligible. But for a family that had been ravaged by medical debt, one that was currently relying on the kindness of strangers to feed their pets and pay their utility bills, it was devastating. And it was terrifying. Would they be able to bring Sean home? If they couldn’t make bail, what then? Would he really have to stay in that cell until his hearing? For months?
“We were scared to death that our son was gonna be in jail for months on end,” Debbie explains. His hearing ended up not being held until almost half a year later. The repercussions of that kind of time would have been disastrous for Sean’s future, just as it was beginning to unfold. Sean was enrolled in classes at Motlow Community College and had plans to join the Navy once he had his degree. If he couldn’t leave the jail, he’d have to drop or fail his classes for the semester, which would mean he wouldn’t qualify for the financial aid he depended on to attend school. And he’d surely lose his job delivering ice, right at the height of summer’s busy season, taking away a line of income for a family that was counting every penny.
What’s more, Debbie had seen the impact that kind of time behind bars had on a person’s psyche and the path where it led. If he’d had to wait until his trial and lost everything he was counting on for his future, Debbie and her husband believed that their son “would probably be in and out of jail for the rest of his life. Because I feel like once somebody sits in there for six months, they lose all hope. And it’s all for money.”
The decision was clear: they had to get Sean out. The only option they could see was to visit a local bail bondsman’s office. But they still had to somehow find the ten percent to pay the bond.
“We had no idea how we would get him out of jail or what it would take. We had no money. I told you earlier, the cancer and the heart disease had wiped us out. We had no money. The one saving grace? Our mortgage payment was $500 and we had not yet paid it. For whatever reason, I hadn’t gone to the bank to pay it. So I had almost $500, thank God.”
With nowhere else to turn, they met with a bail bondsman. Distraught, Debbie waited outside. “I gave my husband the mortgage money,” she remembers, “and I said, ‘you can give him this, because that’s all we have.'”
They paid the bond. They secured the bail. Sean would get to come home and they would just have to figure out some way to pay their mortgage that month. But the experience with the bail system and the bondsman waiting to collect his fee unnerved Debbie.
“It’s almost like they’re sharks who smell the blood in the water,” she says, although she’s quick to mention that the bail bondsman they went to was a very nice man. But still, she remembers, he and others like him clearly could “smell the need that people don’t have 5,000 dollars sitting around, [so they say], ‘I’ll loan it to them for a fee of $500 dollars,’ – which is a lot of money, even now!”
Debbie shrugs as she remembers her fear and anxiety as she waited outside the bail bondsman’s office. “I see the bail bondsman as a necessary evil, I guess. It’s the only way you can get your kid or your loved one out of jail.”
Debbie is grateful now that everything worked out, now that Sean is grown and his firecracker ways have mellowed with time. Because his access to financial aid wasn’t disrupted by his arrest, Sean, unlike so many others, was able to continue attending classes. He eventually found a long career in the Navy, got married and had four children whom Debbie and her husband clearly adore. “He’s finally on the right path,” Debbie says with a smile. But it’s not lost on her how close he came to “game over,” as she describes it, on that fateful Fourth of July.
Decades later, when Debbie decided to run for a seat on the Warren County Commission, she did so with the memory of the love with which her community enveloped her family during the medical crisis that left them so vulnerable.
“The love I felt was incredible… I thought, ‘if I can serve the County that way, I can give back a little.’ Even though I don’t have a strong voice, I want to use what I do have to empower and advocate for people who don’t have the platform that I have. Being a commissioner, I have a little bit more of a platform to speak for them.”
And one community she does believe she must speak up for are her neighbors who are trapped in Warren County’s criminal justice system. While she has felt firsthand the love and support her neighbors gave her family, she sees a lack of that same compassion and understanding when it comes to the justice system.
“I think there’s a mindset that ‘they got what they deserved’ and until it happens to their child or their loved one, they don’t realize that that could easily be them. People need to be educated about what’s really behind a lot of this. It’s a money-making process for bail bondsmen.”
And as long as that process keeps making money for the bail bondsmen and other private profiteers of the criminal justice system, Debbie believes, members of her community who can least afford the financial hardship will continue to pay the price. They are the ones who will continue to be “thrown in jail for things — they’re not even thrown in jail so much for what they did, they could be bonded out if they had the money. It’s almost like we’re sending people to jail because they don’t have money.”
She pauses again, as careful and considerate of the words she chooses to describe the bail process as she was to describe her own journey with cancer and the temporary loss of her vocal cords so many years ago.
“Not ‘almost,'” she clarifies resolutely, her voice now clear and strong. “We are sending people to jail, and we’re keeping people in jail, because they don’t have money.”
“If we’re not gonna be able to get them out [with a bond], their next question is ‘what do I have to do to get out of here? How do I get this over with?’ And right or wrong, that’s how a lot of cases are resolved.”
Privacy statement. This embed will serve content from youtube.com.
If it weren’t for the tri-starred sign declaring “John F. Partin, Public Defender,” in front of the tidy bungalow with white wood siding on the corner of College Street in McMinnville, Tennessee, one might expect to see a pie cooling on one of its green-shuttered window sills or a family dog resting lazily in the shade of the tree in the front yard.
Inside the house is just as well-kept and welcoming, sunlight streaming in through the large, spotless windows and across the mantle of the stately brick fireplace of Mr. Parton’s bright office, the walls of which are decorated with diplomas and framed news articles of the attorney’s career highlights.
Despite the office’s cheerfulness, the McMinnville native admits that back in 2014, when he was knocking on doors and talking to neighbors about his candidacy for public defender of Warren and Van Buren counties, the conversation usually kicked off with wry jokes implying that public defenders, by definition, didn’t try very hard to do their jobs. But he didn’t see it that way. “I felt like this was an incredibly important position,” he shares. “I’m very passionate about criminal defense, I’m very passionate about representing people who may otherwise be voiceless. I enjoy representing the underdog.”
That is certainly how he views his clients, all of whom are facing jail time and none of whom can afford to hire counsel. “And that’s a fairly low bar in today’s society, being unable to hire an attorney to represent your interests,” he says. “When you’re facing a prosecution brought by the state of Tennessee with almost unimaginable resources – just the entire weaponry of the state at its disposal – well, they’re underdogs almost by definition from the moment we meet them.”
Usually, however, the moment he and other public defenders in small, close-knit communities meet their clients doesn’t happen in their offices or at the county justice center. Instead, John says, they’ve already lived alongside them for years.
“They’re our neighbors,” he says simply when asked who in his community makes up his clientele. “The people that I represent are the people that I see when I go to the grocery store with my family. Or when I go to eat with my family, they’re the people that I see. And they have the same problems that you or I or anyone else has.”
But even if they go to the same restaurants or shop at the same grocery stores or have all the same problems that their neighbors have, when it comes to navigating the pre-trial process and to the reasons why they walk into the cheerful white house on College Street in the first place, their experiences and their outcomes are dramatically different.
By John’s estimation, over half of his clients in general sessions court are in jail and unable to make bond. And by his estimation, those clients are extremely frustrated by their situation when he first meets with them.
“What I hear more than anything else,” says John, “is ‘I’m not convicted of anything! Why am I sitting here when I’ve not been convicted of anything? What can I do about this?'”
He shrugs, not with indifference but with a veteran understanding of how his clients’ financial realities determine their ability to negotiate the system.
“And unfortunately, usually the answer is ‘not a lot.’ We can try to get their bond reduced to some number that perhaps the family or some other source can come up with to get them released from pre-trial detention… or not,” he pauses, perhaps thinking about how often – or how rarely – that is a viable option for his clients or their families.
“If we’re not gonna be able to get them out [with a bond],” he continues, “their next question is ‘what do I have to do to get out of here? How do I get this over with?’ And a lot of times that’s how cases are resolved. Right or wrong, that’s how a lot of cases are resolved.”
When asked to clarify what that resolution looks like for his clients, John is to-the-point. “Plead guilty and move out of jail,” he says flatly.
The pressure to take out an expensive bond or accept a plea deal in order to get out of jail as soon as possible might be the reality for many or even all of his clients, but when asked if there are any particular groups in the region he sees as being particularly vulnerable in the system, he is again straightforward.
Warren County, he explains, is home to a large Latino immigrant community, which makes up almost ten percent of its total population. The reason, he says, is because of the role this community plays as the primary workforce for the county’s agriculture system. “We have a lot of nurseries,” he explains. “I don’t know if you’ve noticed that or not. I don’t mean baby nurseries – plant nurseries, tree farms.”
Many of the people who make up the nursery workforce in the area are Latino immigrants, and some, he says, are undocumented. This group, he says slowly, carefully, and with considerable understatement, “may be … over–represented in our criminal justice system, I would say.”
When asked what kinds of charges he sees brought against members of the immigrant community here, he is again to-the-point. “Driving on suspended,” he says plainly. In the state of Tennessee, this is a serious charge, considered either a Class B misdemeanor, punishable by six months in jail, or a Class A misdemeanor, punishable by 11 months 29 days in jail – just short of one full year behind bars.
“Obviously” he continues, “someone who’s not a citizen of the United States cannot obtain a valid driver’s license… If you are arrested for some other traffic offense, even if you’re not able to get a driver’s license, your license is ‘suspended,’ so that they can put you in the system… and then you’re in the system, and it’s very difficult to get out of the system at that point.”
And so, a large part of the community, the one on whom the major industry of the region depends, becomes fuel to drive the engine of its criminal justice system instead. “It’s kind of shooting fish in a barrel,” he says, shaking his head.
He does, however, also see signs of improvement in his community’s approach to its criminal justice system, particularly after the county jail became so overcrowded that it was put at risk of being de-certified by the state.
“Once that specter was raised,” John says with a wry smile, “everyone kind of got into gear about it.”
In 2018, the county formed a joint task force – of which John is a member – to try to find alternative sentencing methods to decrease the jail population. “Which is a good thing, obviously,” he allows. “Those efforts have been fairly successful. Probably not as successful as some would like, but we’re doing a lot better.”
In John’s view, the most successful local reform in recent years is the implementation of an adult recovery court, which tries to steer people struggling with addiction issues away from the criminal justice system by providing treatment and recovery resources as an alternative to jail time. Like many rural communities in the South, John observes a prevalence of methamphetamine and opioid usage in his community. A board member of the court, John commends the structure and support it offers people who might not need to change their entire lives but who “simply lack the resources and the wherewithal to avail themselves of the type of treatment options that the recovery court provides.” What’s more, John believes that if the program were to be scaled up, it could be significantly more successful than current traditional probation supervision.
But as the task force and local elected officials try alternatives to reduce the jail population and as lawmakers at the state legislature weigh more substantial criminal justice reform measures and alternatives to bail, John is cautious about the actual impact some reforms might have on his clients.
For example, he describes himself as “leery” of threat assessment programs or risk assessment tests for pre-trial release. “My clients often don’t have stable lives,” he says. “Right or wrong, they just don’t.”
What does he think about a mechanism that measures a person as being low or high risk to reoffend because their family history, ties to the community, or work history? “I just don’t know that that would benefit a lot of the folks I represent,” he explains. “If those were the basis for the analysis, they might be more likely to come up with $1,000 bucks to get out of jail than pass a threat assessment.”
However, such reforms are still on the horizon and for now, John must keep working to navigate the system as it is today on behalf of his clients. When asked what he would want people to know about the criminal justice system in Warren County, he becomes reflective.
“I think there is sometimes a thought that rural means bad and urban means good when it comes to the criminal justice system, and I don’t think that’s the case at all,” he says.
John recalls the way his neighbors, as they stood with him on their front steps and porches in 2014 and talked with him about his campaign, seemed to come to understand and perhaps agree with John that the role of public defender was not a thankless or underperforming job, but an important one, one that could work to make the community stronger.
“When I was out campaigning for office,” he remembers, “when you speak to people on a one-on-one level, and you kind of get the group-think out of it, there’s a really inherent sense of fairness. And people recognize that the system needs to be fair. The American criminal justice system is adversarial in nature and it only works well when both sides are adequately represented.”
“We are a community that prides itself on fairness.” He stops for a moment, clarifying that he really doesn’t mean to sound condescending or trite when he says that. “I really think that’s true, and that’s why a lot of these programs that we’re implementing here have gotten so much traction, because there’s sort of a widespread belief that that’s how things ought to work. I think that’s largely due to the commitment of this community to treating people fairly.”
But that commitment to fairness, which might explain the support of the criminal justice task force or the success of the recovery court, still isn’t reflected in how the pre-trial system impacts the community members who end up visiting the well-kept white house on College Street to meet with their court-appointed lawyer.
“I have spent my entire legal career practicing [in rural communities],” John says with pride, “and I think that we do a very good job of trying to address the issues that confront our citizens.”
He pauses for a moment, perhaps considering the issues that face his community, specifically the members of the community that he recognizes from his grocery store and from his family going out to eat, the ones who end up being his clients.
“I do think that money bail could be addressed,” he says emphatically, shaking his head. “There’s just got to be a better way.”