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Davidson County, TN’s cash bail system under scrutiny

Davidson County, TN’s cash bail system under scrutiny

The American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee and the Civil Rights Corpsare calling for an end to cash bail in Davidson County, a practice that keeps thousands of people locked up every year because they are poor.

Hedy Weinberg, executive director of the ACLU of Tennessee, and Alec Karakatsanis, executive director of Civil Rights Corps, wrote in an op-ed that bail practices in Davidson County, which is Tennessee’s second-most populous county and has Nashville as its county seat, need reform and that the present practice is likely unconstitutional.

“In 2016, the average amount of secured money bail imposed on people charged with misdemeanors in Davidson County was more than $5,000,” the column said. “Thousands of people are jailed in Davidson County simply because they cannot pay the amount of money demanded in exchange for their liberty.”

In Davidson County, 60 percent of people arrested remain in jail for the entirety of their case, compared with only three percent in New York City and 1.5 percent in Washington, D.C.

Weinberg and Karakatsanis argue that this practice of detaining people who have not been convicted of a crime violates the Due Process and Equal Protection clauses of the 14th Amendment to the United States Constitution and will likely be struck down by a court at some point in the future if reform doesn’t occur.

As Weinberg and Karakatsanis explain: “By making pretrial freedom dependent on access to cash, Davidson County’s secured money bail system creates a two-tiered system of justice, incarcerating the most impoverished while wealthier arrestees are freed. Those who can post the demanded amount of money are able to walk out the doors of the Metro jail and return to their jobs, families and homes. The rest are left to languish in jail, which is devastating for arrestees, their families and their communities.”

Justice reformers have increasingly focused on ending cash bail practices around the country. New JerseyWashington, D.C., and Chicago have largely, if not entirely, abandoned the practice. In Philadelphia, longtime civil rights and criminal defense attorney Larry Krasner, the Democratic nominee for district attorney, has made ending cash bail a key part of his campaign platform.

In Davidson County, any successful bail reform will likely require the support of District Attorney Glenn Funk, who has indicated support for efforts to keep more people out of jail, but seems dubious about ending cash bail. Last year Funk told the Nashville Scene that while he wants “to make sure no one is incarcerated because they are poor,” he’s not yet in favor of eliminating cash bail in the absence of a method to ensure defendants appear for their court dates.

Reform advocates argue, and studies show, however, that cash bail amounts imposed “have no relation either to the amount necessary to ensure appearance or the individual defendant’s ability to pay,” and instead unfairly punishes the poor.

“Cash bail does not do what it claims to do,” Ezra Ritchin of the Bronx Freedom Fund says. “It’s supposed to only address failure to appear, but it doesn’t. What starts as a misdemeanor arrest turns into life destabilization in every way.”

A fund to help people make bail started up in Nashville. Similar bail funds exist in the Bronx, Brooklyn, Chicago and Seattle, reports the Nashville Scene. “And most of their clients don’t skip out on bail,” says Ritchin. In fact, 96 percent of the more than 400 people they’ve bailed out have made all of their court dates.”

Davidson County should consider the op-ed by Weinberg and Karakatsanis to be a clear shot across the bow. The Civil Rights Corp has a string of successful litigation efforts across the county seeking to end the practice of cash bail, most recently in Harris County, Texas.

Dear Jeff Sessions, prosecuting guns more aggressively won’t make us safer

Jeff Sessions
Flickr user Gage Skidmore

Dear Jeff Sessions, prosecuting guns more aggressively won’t make us safer

Jeff Sessions is at it again. In yet another public statement, the Attorney General has voiced his support for a range of discredited or highly controversial criminal justice policies. This time, Sessions delivered a series of tough-on-crime bromides to the National District Attorneys Association: harsh penalties are the solution to drug addiction; broken-windows policing works; more criminal prosecutions can resolve questions about immigration policies; and prosecutors should seek the most severe charge in every case.

There’s a lot in Sessions’ speech to worry criminal justice reformers and confound academics who study criminal law. To narrow the focus, it’s worth pausing for a moment to consider Sessions’ statements on gun crime and what he gets wrong.

“I want to see a substantial increase in gun crime prosecutions,” Sessions told the assembled state prosecutors. “I believe, as we partner together and hammer criminals who carry firearms during crimes or criminals that possess firearms after being convicted of a felony, the effect will be to reduce violent crime.”

The Attorney General’s call to “hammer criminals” and increase prosecutions for illegal gun possession reflects an unfortunate view of gun control as an enterprise best suited to aggressive criminal enforcement. (In fairness, Sessions’ speech — and most of his public comments — indicate that he generally views aggressive criminal enforcement as the solution to social problems.)

As I have argued elsewhere, criminal gun possession statutes and “gun-centric” policing embody much of what’s wrong with the criminal justice system.

From a civil libertarian perspective, this mode of addressing gun violence is a nightmare: New York City’s stop-and-frisk program, the shooting of Philando Castile, and a range of Fourth Amendment cases show that gun possession crimes serve as an invitation for intrusive, violent policing. From a racial justice perspective, gun-centric policing and gun-crime prosecutions disproportionately affect people of color. And criminal gun possession statutes often carry mandatory minimum prison sentences, yielding lengthy terms of incarceration.

Gun violence in the United States is a serious problem. Full stop.

But, just because there’s a problem, it doesn’t mean that any solution is justified or that any policy response is a good one.

In his powerful new book, Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America, James Forman, Jr. describes how progressive black activists in Washington, D.C. inadvertently helped contribute to a racialized system of mass incarceration. Forman emphasizes that these activists were confronting real problems of crime and violence in their communities, but that the response that emerged — harsh sentences and aggressive law enforcement — ultimately hurt those communities and helped cement an underclass of people with criminal records.

Forman’s account is critical to understanding the problem with the Attorney General’s full-throated endorsement of more criminal punishment. Sessions’ comments reflect a troubling argument — he cares about crime victims (as does his audience), and the only way to serve the interests of victims is to pursue harsh punishment and to “hammer criminals.” (It’s worth noting that, even if gun possession might raise the odds of eventual injury, possession itself doesn’t victimize.)

Forman’s account shows that harsh punishment doesn’t always serve victims, and that there are ways to address violence other than more punishment for more people. Recent studies suggest that many victims want a larger role in the criminal justice system and reject a punitive approach. And even preeminent victims’ rights advocate Paul Cassell has been critical of “unjust” sentences that result from mandatory minimum provisions of gun possession statutes.

Critics of mass incarceration have shown that defaulting to more punishment doesn’t necessarily prioritize the voices of victims, and it doesn’t necessarily reduce crime. Prosecutors on the state and local level should remember these lessons and examine other alternatives to addressing violence rather than advancing Sessions’ punitive agenda.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are mine and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Fair Punishment Project.

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Hamilton County Prosecuting Attorney has used forfeiture funds to help pay $2.2 million in no-bid contracts to friend and former colleague

Cincinnati, OH, seat of Hamilton County (Wikimedia Commons)

Hamilton County Prosecuting Attorney has used forfeiture funds to help pay $2.2 million in no-bid contracts to friend and former colleague

A recent report by CityBeat shows that Hamilton County Prosecuting Attorney Joe Deters has engaged a longtime friend and former subordinate in a number of no-bid contracts totaling approximately $2.2 million. Two-thirds of the funds paid by Deters to Dennis Lima and his technology company have come from funds collected by his office through criminal forfeiture efforts.

Because Deters has deemed Lima and his business a “consultant,” Ohio law requiring the county to seek competitive bids does not appear to apply. The CityBeat, howeverargues that what Lima’s company has done goes far beyond consulting.

“But Lima was more than just a consultant,” writes CityBeat reporter James McNair. “He replaced and installed entire IT systems, software and databases. Hamilton County offices such as the Board of County Commissioners, the auditor and the sheriff routinely seek bids for such work.”

Lima was the Hamilton County prosecuting attorney’s in-house information technology person when Deters was the elected county prosecutor from 1992–1999. When Deters was elected state treasurer in 1999, Lima left and started his own company, LimaCorp, and later its successor, OnLine Business Solutions.

Deters was again elected to be the Hamilton County Prosecuting Attorney in 2005 and quickly hired Lima’s company on an 11-month no-bid contract worth $181,000. Since then Deters has continued to hire Lima’s company as a consultant for his office on one-year contracts without ever bidding out the work. This relationship has continued despite Lima at one point filing bankruptcy, at which time he disclosed “more than $500,000 in debts, mostly bank loans to LimaCorp.”

The relationship between Deters and Lima raises ethical concerns, as Ron White, an ethics professor, explained to CityBeat: “In an ideal world, everyone that has the ability to spend taxpayer dollars would be trustworthy and wouldn’t use their position of authority to reward friends with lucrative contracts.”

Prosecutors in Ohio are allowed to use money obtained by way of criminal forfeiture, a process that involves the selling of cars, computers, firearms, land, and other items, usually at auction, that were used in the commission of a crime and later seized by the state. By law, forfeiture money is supposed to go for law enforcement purposes, although prosecutors enjoy wide discretion in how the money is spent.

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