In Our Backyards: Money Bail in Obion County
Obion County Overview
Read the report here
The final community we visited was Obion County, located in West Tennessee, about two hours north of Memphis and only a half hour south of the Kentucky border. Home to about 30,000 residents, Obion is the 46th most rural county in Tennessee and the most rural of the three profiled for our report. The community has seen financial hardship the past few years, with a number of plants that had provided locals with high-paying jobs, including Tyson Foods and the Goodyear Rubber and Tire Plant, closing down or relocating out-of-state. As a result, the community experienced a poverty rate of 14.6% in 2019, and a number of the folks we observed being arraigned during our visit reported working jobs with considerably low wages.
The rate of pretrial incarceration has increased from 88 per 100,000 residents in 2000 to 540 per 100,000 residents in 2018. Like other rural counties in our state, Obion County's incarceration rates also reflect a racial disparity: in Obion County, Black people make up just 10.8% of the population, but 39.6% of the jail population in the most recent years that these data points were available.
In February of 2020, Obion County Jail was at 101.3% capacity and 30.4% of those detainees were being held pretrial. Of those being held in the jail, 17.4% were being held pretrial for misdemeanor charges. According to people working within the criminal justice system, addiction is a major factor contributing to arrests in Obion County, and all of the people we observed being arraigned during our visit had been arrested because of addiction-related issues, or they reported struggling with addiction and substance abuse.
In Obion County, we spoke with four people who work within the criminal justice system, including court-appointed drug resource counselors and court advocates, an assistant public defender and a local general sessions court judge. In conversation with these community members, we discussed how the local justice system was pursuing alternatives to bail, as well as possible future alternatives to money bail.
While our interviews with the community in Obion County focused primarily on its Drug Court program, we have also learned that the county has started a system wherein they text or call defendants with reminders about their upcoming court dates. According to the actors within this criminal legal system, this program has had a positive effect, reducing failure-to-appear rates. In other areas of the country, these kinds of programs have dropped failure-to-appear rates as much as 43%, giving hope for common-sense alternatives to the for-profit bail system in rural communities in Tennessee.
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.
"My People" – Bill, Selina and Brannon
"I've seen mothers, grandmothers who will empty out bank accounts [for] bail money and lawyer money. And the next thing I know, mother and grandmother are destitute and penniless."
"I mean, frankly," says Obion County Assistant Public Defender Bill Randolph as he sits under the bright florescent lights of the conference room of the Obion County Jail, "there's a difference between poor people and people that have money. The disparity is there – just like any place."
And he would know. An attorney for thirty-three years, Bill has worked as a public defender for all but a decade of that time. And as a resident of Obion County since 2002, he feels like he's got a good handle on the larger community as well the smaller subset that makes up his client base."I don't know how they live, frankly," Bill says of his clients.
"A lot of what I call 'my people,'" he continues, "do not have a checking account. They don't have a savings account," he explains. "I mean I don't know how they get by... A lot of them don't work and a lot of them never have worked. A lot of them dropped out of school when they were in eighth, ninth, tenth grade."
But even if they have one of the low-paying factory jobs in town, Bill explains, his clients typically "don't have any position or standing in the community. Some of them, I hate to say it, wouldn't ever have been arrested if they had been someone who was a long-term, longstanding member of the community with a certain profession."
He leans forward, dropping his voice to a conspiratorial whisper. "You know, men that wear ties don't usually get pulled over. That sort of thing… If you're driving a beater, you know, your chances of getting pulled over are higher than if you're driving a brand-new F-150. It's just how it is."
Most of his people, he says, the ones who drive the "beaters," the ones who don't wear ties, initially get pulled over for innocuous infractions: no seatbelt, license plate not visible. That sort of thing.
But when it comes to why his clients end up getting arrested after that initial stop, Bill estimates that ninety percent of the work he does is related to low level marijuana charges. "There's a smell of marijuana," he explains, shrugging slightly. "And the officer is always gonna say there's a smell of marijuana."
Bill says that once they’re in the system, his people and their families will do whatever they can to get out of jail — even if it means financial ruin.
"They go and they rustle up money," he says. "And in certain communities, people will put money in a pot for bond. And you know, I've seen mothers, I've seen grandmothers who will empty out bank accounts – and I'm talking about $50-, $60-, $70-, $100 thousand dollars – in bail money and in lawyer money. They'll go empty 401ks, and the next thing I know, mother and grandmother are destitute and penniless."
Despite this bleak picture, Bill says that he has seen a shift in Obion County's bail practices since he started his practice as assistant public defender. He has noticed less of a reliance on the bail system, which he allows, with reservation, could possibly be an indirect response to the overcrowding of the local jail system in recent years. Certain charges – like anything having to do with guns, he says – get "prioritized," over the more common, low-level offenses his people are frequently charged with.
"People aren't making a lot of bonds here anymore. They're just not!" he exclaims with a shrug. "I see them come across my desk all the time that are O.R.s, release to mama." Many of his clients are released on their own recognizance, which, Bill explains, means that "they sign a piece of paper promising to be there" on their day in court.
"They show up," he says, with an unconcerned wave of his hand. Simple as that. At this point, he's not exactly sure what a third-party bondsman's function even is anymore.
"The purpose of a bond is what?" he asks, and then immediately answers his own question. "The purpose of a bond is to get 'em to court. Is a bail bondsman gonna get them to court? No. Is police gonna get them to court? Only if they don't show. So, if they don't show, the police are gonna get them to court, but that's it."
Part of that shift away from bail is what brings two other fixtures of the Obion County criminal justice system to the county jail. Earlier in the day, Bill had spent the morning observing some of his former clients attend recovery court, where they shared with the general sessions judge, their probation officers, family members and each other about their journey with sobriety and what they had accomplished that week, whether it was to sit for the GED, get a promotion at their job, or forgive someone from their past. Each person had started their testimonial by sharing how many days sober they'd earned, and each person received a round of applause when they finished. Bill had politely applauded every time a participant shared with the group.
"My People" – Selina and Brannon
"They sit in jail. They sit in jail and fall through the cracks."
Now, in the afternoon, peer counselor Brannon Powell and mental health liaison Selina Williams sit quietly in the same space, watching the general sessions court arraignment proceedings of the day – a much more somber gathering than the supportive, hopeful tone of the morning's recovery court. As the judge speaks with each defendant and talks through their charges, their background and, almost universally, what mental health, addiction or substance abuse issues they are struggling with, he will frequently point out either Selina or Brannon, and explain to the defendant that this person is going to talk to them in just a minute about what comes next.
The arraignment over, the pair springs into action, sitting down with the arraigned community members and talking through their needs and what resources are available to help them. Both advocates begin to call their networks, find out who's got room for one more, determine which new clients would be able to arrange for childcare for thirty days — starting now, right this very afternoon – if they were lucky enough to get in for treatment. They go back and forth checking to see who's got a bed, who's got a ride, who's got insurance. In between interviews and assessments, they both somehow find time to sit down and share their experiences with the pre-trial system in poor, rural communities in Tennessee.
While she's relatively new to the Obion County court system, Selina Williams is a veteran in the system, working as a criminal justice liaison for seven years, and spending just under two decades in mental health case management before that. The grant-funded program she works in now, housed through the Carey Counseling Center in Nashville, finds her working to remove barriers to resources for people in the criminal justice system who have co-occurring mental health and alcohol and drug issues, and, when possible, trying to work with courts to divert them from jail time.
For most of the people that Selina works with, bail is not a realistic option. "The majority of my people," she says, "they don't have any money, they don't have a job, they don't have insurance... They have children out here. Some of them don't know where their kids are when they're in jail. If they can't get out, then they're worried about that."
It's a similar situation for Brannon, a peer counselor for Tennessee Project Lifeline, which, through a grant under the Tennessee Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse, works with counties' general sessions courts to connect people in the justice system to addiction treatment resources as an alternative to incarceration. He spends a good amount of his time – one day a week, at least, he estimates – in Obion County, working to provide assessment and support participants of the county recovery court.
"I've seen, with bail, they're not able to get out of jail and they're stuck," Brannon says in between meetings with clients who have been arraigned that morning and who need assistance navigating mental health and addiction resources. "No family members, no help to get out of jail... I spend a lot of time here in Obion County, but they work really — I guess cause it's a small community and they know everybody... they're able to get the help that they need. There's other counties that... they just seem to get stuck in jail. And the help is not offered as much."
When that happens, Selina explains, the situation with her people can become dire. They'll tell her, " 'I want to get out, I want to get back to my family. I want to get back to my children. I just want to get help… Why am I still here?'"
To Selina, that mounting despair is completely understandable. "They get upset. Some of them become suicidal. They just want to know why. Why them, why this is happening? It's the main thing and they're worried about [getting] back to their families." It's Selina's job, she says, to help them get the treatment that they need so they can stop the cycle of incarceration that keeps them from their families in the first place.
Court systems like the one in Obion County are trying alternatives to incarceration or using programs like Selina's and Brannon's to rely less on practices like money bail. But Brannon still thinks that whether or not "his people" can get out – in his case, out of the Obion County Justice Center and into a substance abuse treatment facility – is still largely dependent on whether or not they have money.
"If somebody's got resources? Insurance? I can get them in somewhere this afternoon," he explains, a hint of frustration in his voice. "As opposed to having to get on a waitlist… But mainly my people – I say my people, people that I deal with – have no resources, no insurance." He gestures to outside the door, where he had been talking with a woman who had just been arraigned for a methamphetamine possession charge that morning. He's spent the last hour talking with her and her husband, trying to get everything lined up to get her into a bed in a rehab facility in Nashville.
"This girl that I've been on the phone with," he continues, "she says she's got TennCare. But we can't identify that she has TennCare." He shakes his head slowly. "And that throws it into a whole other ballgame."
And what could happen to her might then be the same thing he sees happen to his people across the state, the ones who don't have insurance and can't get a bed; the ones who don't have money and can't make bail.
"They sit in jail," he says, sighing. "They sit in jail and fall through the cracks."
Back in the Justice Center conference room that morning, Bill the public defender, was quiet for a long time as he reflected on the economic disparity that he says is as real in Obion County's criminal justice system as it is anywhere else. "I tell my people to dress up when they come to court," he finally said.
"Some can, some can't… But are you treated better in United States courts if you present a good appearance? Absolutely. That's just how it is. So there is disparity between poor and rich, or people who have money and people who don't."
"I have been a prosecutor and I've been in private practice. I just like this work better. I don't know why. When you're a prosecutor, you're always expected to win. And when you work as a public defender, no one expects you to win," he said, with a little laugh. "And your client doesn't even expect you to win… [They think that] because you're a public defender, you're not going to work for 'em. So I try to disabuse them of that notion." He paused again for a moment to think about his people, the harsh lights of the conference room bouncing off his glasses. He nodded to himself.
"And really?" he said, "It shouldn't matter whether you have money for retained counsel or not. It really shouldn't."
Judge Jimmy Smith
"Whether it's a day, week, month or a year, those people are coming back out of jail and they're going back to being your next-door neighbor, live across the street from you, or have kids that go to school where your kids go."
"I'm Jimmy Smith and I've lived here all my life. I was born in a little town called Hornbeak. I became a judge in 2009."
The Honorable Jimmy Smith, wearing a suit and tie, sits in a small wooden chair in the center of his courtroom on the second floor of the Obion County Courthouse, located in the heart of downtown Union City, Tennessee. He's already presided over recovery court that morning. He's got two meetings and a funeral to attend that afternoon with lunch somewhere in between. Later he'll run the last arraignment before the weekend, and he's got to be in Memphis by six o'clock.
The judge is a busy man, and, in his community, an important one.
To his left and right are the tables where plaintiffs and defendants sit with their counsel, hired or appointed. Behind his right shoulder is the witness stand, a box of Kleenex waiting expectantly beside the microphone. On the far left side of the room are two rows of six swivel chairs where a jury of peers serve their civic duty. And directly behind him is the large, imposing, dark-paneled bench where he oversees the proceedings of his court, the seal of Tennessee hanging proudly on the wall behind it. It would undoubtedly be an intimidating scene if you were called for general sessions court, but the judge, for one, seems very at ease as he sits for the camera, a warm, friendly smile on his lips as he begins talking about the community in Obion County.
"Well, it's a great place to live!" he says with sincere enthusiasm – which, to be fair, is how Judge Smith says most things. "It's one of those places that – people who live in rural areas tend to think there's no better way of life... Most people who live here are glad they live here," he says confidently.
"Some leave," he continues, noting that a few of his own children have been lured away by the "bright lights" of Nashville, "but even the ones that leave, I think, always have a longing for where they grew up in a small town and look forward to maybe someday coming back." It is not immediately clear if this last remark is a local man's observation of his neighbors or rather the wishful thinking of a father who misses his children.
Regardless, for all its charms and advantages, the judge realizes that living in Obion County has gotten harder for a lot of folks in recent years. For a long time, he explains, even outside of the local farms, there were "a lot of really good opportunities for people who didn't go to college to earn a good living here," he says – from Tyson Foods plant, or William Sausage, or especially the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Plant, which was the beating heart of the economy in town.
But when those plants started closing, and when Goodyear left Obion in 2011 and took 1,900 high-paying jobs with it, well, "that was pretty devastating to the local economy," the judge says. "It was a very, very high income for a rural-area workplace. It displaced a lot of people. A lot of changes had to take place."
There have been plants that moved into town since the closures, Judge Smith says. Although he allows that "none of them meet the level of income that the Goodyear plant provided, it at least has given us a situation where anybody that wants a job can find a job in this county."
"I tell people in court every week that don't have a job that there are more jobs in Obion County than there are people to do them," he declares with emphasis. "But you need to be clean and sober, and you need to show up to work. The jobs are here."
A few hours after sitting for his interview, Judge Smith will repeat this adage almost verbatim, and in the same assured, confident tone, to one of the men being arraigned before him at the Obion County Jail. The man, wearing a black-and-white striped prisoner's uniform and chains shackled around his wrists and ankles, will stand in front of the judge at a podium that has been worn down from use. When asked, he will dutifully answer the judge's question about how much he makes at his job at one of the local plants. His answer is that his salary is a little over $8 an hour.
So the judge may be right that the jobs are here, but the wages are beyond low.
And he is aware of the economic disparities people who don't make any money face in the criminal justice system. For people like the ones he will see at arraignment later that afternoon, he says, "if you've got financial resources, I won't say the amount that the bond is set at doesn't matter, but, generally… you can set a high bond and they'll be out before dark. And other people, who you might even set a much lower bond because they don't have financial resources, they're gonna stay in jail a considerable length of time."
It's been something of a personal mission, the judge says, to change that in his court.
"When I went on the bench," Judge Smith recalls, "you had a preset bond and you didn't look at the individual factors related to the people that were involved. That was something that I wanted to do differently. Fortunately for me, it came at a time when that was happening at other places so I could see what was going on in other courts and how other judges were handling that."
"We just developed an individual approach to look at factors relating to each individual," he continues. "Certainly the crime is a big part of that. It's gonna be very similar for a drug crime whether you've got money, or whether you don't. But we're also looking at somebody's ability to pay, their ties to the community."
One reason why he thinks individual, case-by-case analysis works better than preset bonds in Obion County, is that "even though it's not quite as commonplace as it used to be, most judges know the people in their community," he says.
So, he reasons, "in rural areas, if you don't know the particular individual before you, you know some of his family or some of his associations. You probably know if he went to school at one of the local schools or if he's worked at one of the local employers. So we have a pretty good feel of folks that we're dealing with."
During the arraignment that afternoon, Judge Smith seems to be able to call on some kind of connection to each handcuffed person standing at the worn-down podium before him – whether it's because he knows the restaurant where they're up for a promotion soon, or about how much their husband makes at a mid-level job at the Green Plains plant, or how far they're going to have to walk to get home if he releases them on their own recognizance that afternoon (which he does, saying that it's a good thing it's not raining that day since the man has a trek ahead of him). He even knows that one woman, charged with drunk and disorderly conduct, has been struggling recently with her hard-won sobriety following the deaths of her brother and mother this past year.
But still, the rates of incarceration, including pre-trial incarceration, in Obion are higher than they were in the early 2000s – a standard trend in rural communities across the state and nation, regardless of whether the local judges handing down the sentences know their defendants personally or not. And while there was a noticeable drop in the pre-trial population rates in Obion County in the years after Judge Smith took office, in the past few years the numbers have started to creep back up.
Perhaps that is because, like the judge says, if faced with a drug charge, a person's ability to get out of jail is going to be similar whether or not they have money. And if that day's arraignment and the parade of methamphetamine, marijuana and narcotics possession charges is any indication, the reason the person is standing at the arraignment podium is very likely to be drugs, which means more filled beds at the Obion County Jail.
And while he's an enthusiastic proponent of alternative sentencing programs like recovery courts and grant programs that bring mental health and addiction experts into the court room to try to help community members navigate the criminal justice system, the judge also sees the larger issue as it affects the community as being a problem of perspective. Namely, how society has defined and "othered" the people in our communities who are caught up in the incarceration system.
Judge Smith recalls what a mentor once said at a conference years ago that has always stuck with him: In the justice system, you should "'lock up the people that you're scared of, not the people you're mad at.' For so long in the criminal justice system, what we have done is lock up the people we're mad at," he says.
The people we more often see serving long sentences in our jails, Judge Smith says, "they stole something. Granted, they shouldn't have stolen it and there are consequences. They used drugs. Granted, they shouldn't have used drugs and there are consequences, and we'll deal with it. But by and large, they are people we're mad at, they're not people who've killed somebody, who have committed terrible, serious crimes that should be locked up."
Judge Smith alludes to another one of his mentors with a perhaps more traditional viewpoint of the criminal justice system. "I've got a dad who's 91 years old," he says, smiling. "An incredible person, but he's old school," he explains. "He's of the philosophy that if somebody did the crime, they ought to do the time. You lock 'em up and throw away the key, and they pay their debt to society."
"That sounds good to a lot of people," he says. But that's not how it actually works – especially in a close-knit community like Union City or Troy.
"Whether it's a day, week, month, year, or three years in jail," the judge explains, "those people are coming back out of jail and they're going back to being your next-door neighbor, live across the street from you, or have kids that go to school where your kids go."
"These folks are coming back into the community," he says. "It's not a matter of if they're coming back, it's when they're coming back. Even people who commit crimes that sometimes we think we'd like to lock 'em up and throw away the key, the reality is under the sentencing guidelines that exist in the state of Tennessee, that a person is gonna serve their sentence and then they're coming back out of jail. They're coming right back into the community they left by and large… And generally, incarceration makes a better criminal than it does a better citizen."
When it comes to the members of his community who are struggling with addiction and ending up in jail for low-level crimes, he says, "if we don't rehabilitate people and treat people, then they're coming out of incarceration a better criminal than they went into jail as. If they're a better criminal, and that's their livelihood, and they're still dealing with drugs and alcohol, then they're more likely to make the community worse rather than making it better."
Instead, Judge Smith says, "we need to be working on making them better citizens, or at least rehabilitating them so they have the potential to be good citizens. Then, the chances of them coming back to jail are reduced astronomically."
"If we can rehabilitate them, and they're living in the community with you, then you're gonna be, one, a better community," he says, starting to list off the public benefits on his fingers. "Two, a safer community, and three, they may end up being people that become your friends or acquaintances. The person that's living next door to you now is not the same person that went into jail… Everybody deserves a second chance. It's a question of whether or not they're gonna take advantage of that second chance."
The time he'd allotted for the interview over, within a few minutes Judge Smith has whirled out of the courtroom to his next appointment. In a little over an hour he’ll be behind another bench, this time at the county jail, calling in the first defendant to shuffle in, chains clanging around his ankles, and stand at the little, worn-out podium and face his arraignment.
And Judge Jimmy Smith, from Hornbeak, Tennessee, will begin the day's work of deciding which of his neighbors he thinks is going to take advantage of their second chance.