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

In Our Backyards - The Vera Institute of Justice

Incarceration Trends in Tennessee Fact Sheet - The Vera Institute of Justice

Incarceration Trends in McMinn County - The Vera Institute of Justice

Incarceration Trends in Warren County - The Vera Institute of Justice

Incarceration Trends in Obion County - The Vera Institute of Justice

ACLU Bail Policy Reports

Selling Off Our Freedom: How Insurance Corporations Have Taken Over Our Bail System (American Civil Liberties Union’s Campaign for Smart Justice and Color of Change)

No Money, No Freedom: The Need for Bail Reform (ACLU of Washington)

Bail Reform: A Civil Liberties Briefing (ACLU of Ohio)

ACLU Blog of Rights posts

"Kalief Browder’s Tragic Death and the Criminal Injustice of Our Bail System," by Udi Ofer, Deputy National Political Director and Director of Campaign for Smart Justice, ACLU

"We’re Living in a Surveillance Society, So Why Do We Need Bail?," by Jay Stanley, Senior Policy Analyst, ACLU Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project & Andrea Woods, Equal Justice Works Fellowship Attorney, Criminal Law Reform Project

"Behind Many ‘Mom and Pop’ Bail Bonds Shops Is a Huge Insurance Corporation Out to Profit From Misery," by Margaret Dooley-Sammuli, Criminal Justice and Drug Policy Director, ACLU of California

"Poverty Is Not a Crime, so Why Are People Being Trapped in Immigration Detention for Being Poor?," by Katie Egan, Washington Legislative Office & Joanne Lin, Senior Legislative Counsel, ACLU

Additional Resources

"How race impacts who is detained pretrial," The Prison Policy Initiative (2019)

"Jails matter. But who is listening?" The Prison Policy Initiative (2015)

Recovery Courts in Tennessee - Tennessee Department of Mental Health & Substance Abuse Services

Adverse Child Experiences in Tennessee - Tennessee Department of Health

Jefferson County, Colorado, Court Date Notification Program Six Month Program Summary - Pretrial Justice Institute

In the Media

"Conservatives Have a Stake in Bail Reform," The National Review (July 2017)

"Opinion: The one issue that could bring Democrats and Republicans together," CNN (March 9, 2021)

"Has bail reform in America finally reached a tipping point?," The Christian Science Monitor (April 2017)

"Bail-Bond System Exploits the Poor and Undermines Justice, ACLU Says," NBC News (May 2017)

"Davidson County must reform unconstitutional bail practices," by Hedy Weinberg and Alec Karakatsanis, The Tennessean (July 14, 2017)

"How the big business of cash bail targets the poor," MSNBC (September 2019)

"Bill Watch: California Lawmakers Try Again to Get Rid of (Most) Cash Bail," Witness LA (January 30, 2021)

"Illinois Becomes 1st State to Eliminate Cash Bail," NPR (February 22, 2021)

"Opinion: How Did the ‘Worst of the Worst’ Become 3 Out of 4?," The New York Times (February 24, 2021)