Support Independent Journalism. Donate today!

Cash Bail Is Creating a Crisis in Rural Jails

A federal lawsuit alleges lack of due process in a rural Tennessee county, and reform advocates say its jail is hardly an outlier.

The Hamblen County Jail in rural Morristown, Tennessee.(Photo by Alex Jordan, Staff Attorney, Southern Poverty Law Center)

For days, Amanda Cameron didn’t know when she would be able to return home to her 1-year-old daughter, whom she supports with sporadic work arranging flowers and the help of public benefits. 

The 36-year-old slept on a thin mat on the floor of the Hamblen County Jail in rural Morristown, Tennessee, according to a federal lawsuit filed Feb. 16 against the county sheriff, general sessions judge, and judicial commissioners in which Cameron is a named plaintiff. She ended up there after she was arrested Feb. 15 for various drug crimes, and her bail amount was set at $30,000.

Cameron was there for about a week, according to Civil Rights Corps, which filed the lawsuit along with the Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection (ICAP) at Georgetown Law School on behalf of pretrial detainees in the county.

From Feb. 15 until the day she was bonded out, Cameron waited in the jail without knowing when she would see a judge. As of the filing of the lawsuit, she hadn’t had her initial appearance, which in Hamblen happens over a video feed, nor had she been assigned counsel. (According to Civil Rights Corps, all named plaintiffs have since been released on bond.)

In Hamblen County, bond hearings take less time than it does to purchase a pizza online, don’t involve the presence of defense counsel, and simply reiterate the charges and bail amount required for freedom, according to the lawsuit.

“The Hamblen County Court operates a two-tiered system of justice. Those who are able to afford money bail go free, while those who cannot must endure deplorable and inhumane conditions in the Hamblen County jail,” Tara Mikkilineni, senior attorney at Civil Rights Corps, said in a statement announcing the lawsuit, which alleges that the current cash bail system in Hamblen County violated federal due process and equal protection as well as the right to counsel. Taylor and Knight, a Knoxville law firm hired to defend Hamblen County officials, told The Appeal via email that it does not comment on pending litigation.

Eliminating cash bail is a talking point for presidential candidates, Democratic state legislatures, and major urban regions. But rural counties are lagging. For example, even as Larry Krasner, the district attorney in Philadelphia, says he no longer seeks cash bail for people charged with low-level offenses, the idea has not gained traction in most of the other Pennsylvania counties, many of which are rural. In Montgomery County, as in many counties throughout the state, “judicial decision-makers of minor courts frequently fail to consider alternatives to cash bail, do not take into account the accused’s ability to pay, and impose excessive bail for the purpose of ensuring pretrial incarceration,” a public defender wrote in a brief supporting an ACLU lawsuit challenging bail practices in the state. 

Some evidence suggests that median bail amounts may vary widely among counties. An analysis by The Guardian, for example, found a wide variation in bail amounts among counties in California for identical offenses. And an analysis by the Vera Institute of Justice found that in Tennessee, the 50 percent increase in jail population growth has been largely driven by the non-urban counties, and now the highest pretrial incarceration rate in Tennessee is in rural counties like Hamblen.

In Hamblen County, Judge W. Douglas Collins hears all initial appearance hearings in General Sessions Court and has the capacity to release people without bail. According to the complaint, Judge Collins, a clerk, or another judicial commissioner sets bond amounts without any information about arrestees nor any knowledge about their ability to pay. Even when these bail amounts are challenged after the defendant finally gets appointed counsel, Judge Collins, according to the complaint, “refuses to consider constitutionally required factors, including ability to pay, or to provide the substantive findings and procedural safeguards required by the Constitution.” This means that bail is generally not reduced.

In Hamblen, overincarceration and the use of cash bail amounts that most people cannot afford have led to a dangerously overcrowded jail, something that’s becoming increasingly common in many rural areas. Vera has been mapping jail population growth across the country, and at least 51 percent of the nation’s pretrial detainees are being held outside major metropolitan areas.

People sleep on the floor inside the Hamblen County Jail. (Photo by Alex Jordan, Staff Attorney, Southern Poverty Law Center.)

About half of the 400 people being held at the Hamblen County jail are pretrial, according to the complaint, a big factor in the jail’s overcrowding. “The money bail system in Hamblen County criminalizes poverty and has directly led to overcrowding and inhumane conditions in its jail,” Seth Wayne, senior counsel at ICAP, said in a press release. Willie Santana, a public defender in Hamblen County, told The Appeal in a phone interview that bail in rural counties like Hamblen “destroys the presumption of innocence” and the effect is “wide-ranging and more damaging.” 

In a New York Times article published in December, Hamblen County Sheriff Esco Jarnagin called the jail a “cesspool of a dungeon.” He has raised concerns about jail overcrowding and the dangerous conditions it creates, prompting the county committee to approve construction of a new 500-bed jail. The state fire marshal has mandated that the jail decrease the population because of the safety hazard, but it hasn’t happened yet. In the jail, according to the Times and the complaint, dozens of people sleep on the floor on thin mats, often adjacent to mold. Fights happen regularly, according to the Times. Detainees meet their attorneys in supply closets, according to the lawsuit. During one six-month period, there were 150 detainee fights. Santana, an assistant public defender who primarily serves Hamblen County, said “it’s hard to describe the smell and the feelings you have when leaving the jail. If a shelter kept dogs this way, it would be shut down.”

In jails all over the country, people regularly wait weeks or even months to see a judge, and the problem is prevalent in rural areas with fewer personnel. One of the plaintiffs in the current lawsuit against the county was arrested for driving under the influence, a misdemeanor, on Feb. 11. Her preliminary hearing, the time when she could contest her bail or argue that she should be released, wasn’t until early March. The Criminal Court judge for the region “rides circuit,” which means he only appears in Hamblen three terms a year, and grand juries only meet six times a year. These conditions specific to rural regions—where judges are shared and it’s not economically feasible to keep courts open all year—make pretrial detention even longer and more onerous.

The issue of lag time between hearings, which causes people to wait in jail indefinitely, is understudied in rural regions. In rural Mississippi, Jessica Jauch was held for over three months before arraignment, during which she had no lawyer, could not pay her bond, and could not challenge the evidence behind the charges. (She turned out to be innocent and later sued.) Longer wait times for court dates on top of high bail amounts cause many people to plead guilty simply to go home, forgoing due process altogether. In Hamblen, according to the complaint, the vast majority of people plead guilty before their public defender has had a chance to even evaluate their case. Those detained before they are indicted can’t fight their case or receive discovery, which means they cannot see the evidence prosecutors plan to use against them.

All of the problems with cash bail and overcrowded jails are compounded by the poverty and lack of general resources in rural counties. Hamblen County’s poverty rate is around 20 percent. This means that people are even less likely to be able to afford cash bail, even as they are more likely to receive it. There are fewer lawyers available to represent people who need it. 

Community resources are also lacking for those who seek treatment in lieu of jail time, and rural hospitals have been closing at an alarming rate. Although law enforcement argues that substance use disorders have caused an increase in crime, jails like the one in Hamblen aren’t able to offer any programs or medications to help people. (The Hamblen jail does not offer any standard substance use disorder treatments.) The public defender’s office has recommended a pretrial supervision program that would keep many people out of jail entirely, but, according to the New York Times article, judges were against it. 

“Many rural communities have seen decades of investment in jails and other carceral infrastructure, to the absolute detriment of any kind of community-based supports or services that keep people safe, healthy and alive,” Jasmine Heiss, the campaign director for In Our Backyards at the Vera Institute, said in an email. “In a moment when rural America is confronting growing social and economic crises, this means that jail and criminalization has become the default response to poverty, homelessness, mental health, and substance use—and that unaffordable money bail is the blunt instrument that judges use to punish the unconvicted poor and keep them locked up.”

Santana summed up the problem: “While jailing accused people pretrial may seem more efficient, it gets in the way of justice. If efficiency gets in the way of justice, then justice should win.”