On any given night in the United States, nearly 450,000 people who are legally presumed innocent sit in jail only because they cannot afford to pay a monetary bail amount. Today in our state, we have a two tiered justice system where poor people are punished more harshly than people with money. Locking up people before trial because they cannot afford to pay bail is a leading cause of mass incarceration in Tennessee and elsewhere.

People suffer in local jails while awaiting trial, often for low-level offenses, and many working Tennesseans lose their jobs because they are unable to make bail and return to their homes and places of employment while waiting for their day in court. Most importantly, putting bail out of reach for thousands of low-income people violates our fundamental principle of innocent until proven guilty.

Reforming our state’s treatment of people before trial, including the use of money bail, will result in fewer people unnecessarily held behind bars.  This is why advocating for fair and effective alternatives to pretrial detention is an important part of the ACLU of Tennessee's Campaign for Smart Justice.

Shelby County

One of the areas where we, alongside our partners, are currently focusing on the need for bail reform is Shelby County.

Tennessee law requires that judges treat money bail as a last resort, to be imposed only if other less restrictive conditions are deemed insufficient to ensure that someone appears for their trial. The U.S. Constitution also requires courts to hold bail hearings within a reasonable time of arrest, with representation by an attorney, and to take individual circumstances into account, including a person’s ability to pay.

Under Shelby County’s current pretrial system, a person can be held for weeks or longer without a bail hearing with counsel, and ability to pay is not considered when bail is set, leaving those who cannot afford to pay detained indefinitely, even if they are not a flight or safety risk, while those who face the same charges but can afford to pay money bail are freed until trial.

ACLU-TN along the ACLU, Just City, The Wharton Law Firm and other partners are dedicated to working with Shelby County elected officials and judges to advocate for the reform of these unjust bail practices.

We sent a letter to county judicial and government officials demanding that the county stop bail practices that violate the constitutional and statutory rights of people arrested in Shelby County, and we are making the following proposals to fix the county’s pretrial system:

  • Letter and Proposals for Local Judges This letter and the attached proposals preview components of true pretrial release/detention hearings that we view as essential.
  • Proposed County Commission Resolution This resolution would express the county’s expectation that pretrial release determinations comply with state and federal law, and provide for data collection to evaluate the judicial commissioners program from this lens.
  • Pretrial Reform Recommendations This document outlines reforms to other practices, including the provision of pretrial services and use of citation and release authority, to complement this system of release, to promote and fund sufficient supports for persons released pretrial, and to encourage long-term community safety and equity.
  • Response to Shelby County's Redlines On March 3, 2022, the county attorney shared redlined versions of our first proposals for bail reform. This is our response, outlining key principles that are non-negotiable for us, and required by law.

Learn More About Bail Reform


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