The story of money bail's devastating impact on rural communities in Tennessee - as told by the community members themselves

Read the report here

Locking up people before trial because they cannot afford to pay bail is a leading cause of mass incarceration in Tennessee and its impact is devastating for people who live in our state’s rural communities. Half of the nearly 30,000 people sitting in our state’s county jails are pre-trial detainees who are legally presumed innocent and are eligible for release. But because they cannot afford to pay a monetary bail amount set by a judge or magistrate, they instead languish behind bars while awaiting trial, often for low-level offenses.

Being incarcerated pre-trial can have a life-altering snow-ball effect, as many working Tennesseans lose their jobs or face eviction because they are unable to make bail and return to their homes and places of employment. Others face the terrifying possibility of losing custody of their children while they wait for their day in court.

While bail is a driver of mass incarceration statewide, its impact on rural communities is, in many cases, more severe than it is in Tennessee’s city centers. Since 2000, the pretrial incarceration rate has increased 163% in the state's 53 rural counties, compared to an increase of only 2% in the state’s urban counties. While larger, more densely populated counties logically have more people in their jails, in recent years small cities and rural counties in Tennessee have been those with the highest rates of incarceration per capita.

Money bail has created a two-tiered justice system in our state, where Tennesseans who have limited incomes – particularly those who live in rural communities – are punished more harshly than their neighbors who have access to resources and money.

Through a grant provided by the Vera Institute of Justice, ACLU-TN staff were able to travel to three rural communities across the state – McMinn County in East Tennessee, Warren County in Middle Tennessee, and Obion County in West Tennessee – to meet with and learn from people who had seen, first-hand, how this unfair practice had hurt them or others in their towns. These individuals bravely agreed to share their stories and lend their expertise and experience to better help people across the state of Tennessee – from community members in rural, suburban, and urban settings to state lawmakers considering legislative reforms – understand the dangerous, ineffective, and predatory ways the bail system hurts their neighbors.

These are their stories.

From McMinn County, we spoke to:

  • Stephen, a former track coach and "Teacher of the Year" at the local middle school, who discusses both his own experiences with the bail system and those of the city's growing communities battling addiction and homelessness;
  • Nikola, a mother of three whose recent struggles with chronic illness and homelessness have accelerated into an endless cycle of criminal trespassing arrests, exorbitant bonds, and brutal experiences of incarceration, from which she sees no escape; and
  • Jessica, a single mom who recounts her years cycling in and out of the criminal justice system for low-level crimes, culminating in a six-month stay at the McMinn County Justice Center.

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-ridden 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.

Finally, in Obion County, we spoke to:

  • Bill, a local assistant public defender who describes watching his clients' family members empty bank accounts or turn to community crowdfunding to make bail and get their loved ones out of jail; and
  • Selina and Brannon, court-appointed mental health and substance abuse advocates who discuss how structural economic inequality impacts the ways their clients navigate or fall through the cracks of the pre-trial criminal justice system; and
  • Judge Jimmy Smith, a general sessions court judge who explains his philosophy on alternative sentencing and treatment-based programs, and why he doesn't think money bail systems are effective in rural communities.


Take the Survey & Tell Your Bail Story

Transforming our state's treatment of people incarcerated while awaiting trial, including how communities rely on the use of money bail, will result in fewer people unnecessarily held behind bars simply because they cannot afford to post bond.

Let us know how money bail impacts your community or share your story about your experience with the bail system by taking our Money Bail Community Impact Survey. Your responses may be shared with state lawmakers as they discuss bail reform initiatives during the 2021 legislative summer study on bail issues (see below for more details).

Legislative Initiatives

This summer, lawmakers will take up the following bills during a study session (more bills may be added to this list):

SB 289/HB 1518 Bail, Bail Bonds – As introduced, requires the clerk of each court with criminal jurisdiction to submit a monthly report to the administrative office of the courts including certain statistical information about arrests, release, bonds, and failures to appear; requires clerks who fail to submit the required information to pay an administrative fee. Current Status
SB 804/HB 897 Bail, Bail Bonds - As introduced, establishes a registration program for the regulation and oversight of bail bondsmen by the department of commerce and insurance Current Status
SB 805/HB 898 Bail, Bail Bonds – As introduced, authorizes certain defendants to execute a bail bond with the clerk of the court in an amount equal to 10 percent of the defendant's bail; requires that bail amount paid by a defendant be first applied to the payment of any ordered restitution; creates a rebuttable presumption that a person charged with certain bailable offenses will not violate the conditions of the person's release; requires a magistrate to document the factors used in making a release determination. Current Status
SB 1438/HB 420 General Assembly – As introduced, creates an ad hoc committee consisting of members of the general assembly to review the current laws, rules, and policies of cash bail in this state, and report on its findings and recommendations by January 15, 2022. Current Status


The Vera Institute of Justice

ACLU Bail Policy Reports

ACLU Blog of Rights posts

Additional Resources

In the Media