By Peter White
NASHVILLE, TN – Judicial candidates running for jobs in criminal and general sessions courts did something last week they would never do on the bench. They testified. The election is May 1.
Nashville Organized for Action and Hope (NOAH) held a forum at Lee Chapel AME Church to hear what candidates for judge thought about money bail, mental health diversion, and mass incarceration. NOAH is an umbrella group of 61 churches, labor unions, and other organizations engaging people around the issues of affordable housing, criminal justice reform, and jobs.
After candidates introduced themselves, Pat Halper of The Temple spoke briefly about the money bail system and the need for alternatives to it. The crowd gasped to hear what happened to Terry Patrick. He said he was arrested, charged, and convicted of a crime he didn’t do involving $20. He couldn’t afford bail, so he was jailed for months, and finally pleaded guilty just to get out and restart his life on the outside.
Patrick’s alleged accomplice posted bail and was out quickly and got probation. His life was not ruined. Patrick’s life was destroyed. By the time his nightmare ended he owed $16,000 in court costs that he is trying to get reduced.
“They keep you so long, you take anything just to get out,” he said. So now Patrick has a record for a crime he didn’t do and is in debt because he is black and poor.
Patrick’s story is not the exception but all too often, it is the rule.
According to a recent Brooking Institute study, one in seven children born in North Nashville between 1980 and 1986 can expect to end up incarcerated on any given day in their early 30s. Lee Chapel and the offices of the Tennessee Tribune are in zip code 37208. This neighborhood has the highest incarceration rate in the nation (14%). It is 93 percent black, has a 42 percent child poverty rate, 11 percent of residents are single parents, and 11 percent of men are unemployed.
In Their Own Words
Here is what the candidates said about bail reform, mass incarceration, and mental health diversion. Note: Sheriff Daron Hall plans to treat mentally ill defendants in a special wing of the new jail for a month and divert their cases into treatment programs instead of a rap sheet. General Sessions judges have started a pilot program to assess poor defendants, determine if they are likely to return to court, and release them on their own recognizance without paying bail.
General Sessions, Division III
Ana Escobar did not attend but sent a proxy to read her written statements.
“I believe that the proposal to do away with cash bail makes sense.
There is nothing more concerning than standing by a client who you know is innocent and the only reason they are pleading guilty is because they have to get back to work or their families.
As a General Sessions judge I will be hearing domestic violence cases…
We as a community need to have a conversation about how we want to handle these cases.”
I absolutely support the sheriff’s plan for mental health diversion for probation violations…and I would go a step further and include not only those with probation violations but also divert those who are charged with nonviolent misdemeanor offenses.
Prosecutors and defense attorneys alike have been in situations where you know you have a client who has mental health issues and they see them on their docket everyday. The system is not set up to treat them.
“What it looks like to me is a cookie cutter system as far as how we should process the people who come before the court.
We should never say the same thing that applies to one person should automatically apply to the second.
We should evaluate each particular case as far as what is going on with that case, analyze what the law is, to determine what or if a bond should be required.
If we’re saying someone has an illness, why would they be in jail? If this person is in need of treatment I am concerned about the treatment that they would be receiving in jail.
I agree with the spirit in this proposal. I just have an issue with it being done in jail.
We have other options for mental health facilities.”
Newton Holiday, III
“There are flaws in our current bail system. I see it time and time again…innocent people in jail because they can’t afford an attorney and that’s the bottom line. The system is set up that way.
Misdemeanors have to be dealt with by a case-by-case basis.
Bail reform definitely has to be changed. It shouldn’t be just for the rich.
I agree with the sheriff’s program. It has to start with the attorneys who are representing these individuals and being able to determine that they have issues.”
Not only do I support the new pilot program in General Sessions, I voted in favor of that and support it very very heavily. If you’re poor your experience of the criminal justice system is completely different from everyone else.
They end up pleading guilty and the court officer hands them a form for $ 900 or $1100 in court costs and this is going to a person who doesn’t have $137 to get out of jail to begin with and so the system is definitely broken.
We have the presumption of innocence and our presumed innocence travels with you through the entire criminal process. At the end of the day why wouldn’t you support something like this?
I do support the sheriff’s plan. I think we need to decriminalize all misdemeanors for someone who is diagnosed as mentally ill, As soon as you walk in the jail you go over here to this side for 30 days and get diagnosed and see if there is something that we can help you with, and you can get the treatment that you need so you can be a productive citizen and move on with your life.
The system is failing people and setting people up for failure. We need to develop partnerships with the mental health community outside of Daron Hall’s facility so we can assure they continue to be mentally healthy.
General Sessions Division X
“I’m ashamed to say we had to wait on a lawsuit or a threatened lawsuit to move forward. I don’t think in any case it’s right for a person to have to go to jail because they simply can’t pay. The assessments they we have are not accurate.
I think the sheriff is exactly right.
Someone with a mental health issue has to be taken into account to be able to divert them into treatment. Incarceration is not the place. The sheriff has the right position in mind. The question is whether or not we can convince the council and state legislators to provide a facility where those people who have committed a crime can get the necessary treatment before incarceration.
This idea is great on paper but the funding is what is important in terms of having staff and the facilities.
Frank Mondelli, Sr.
“We’ve got to see what the charge is, you got to understand what the make-up of the person is and then evaluate that, and determine whether of not they need a bond or can be released on their own recognizance.
We need space for violent offenders. People who are not committing violent crimes do not need time in jail because there are two things that happen: they lose their job, they lose their family and then where are we? It’s a burden on society.
It’s a good program. It needs to be worked on. We study it some more. We look at it, We tinker with it. It makes it better for society and a good thing for everybody.
“My concern is I see people come in who are obviously mentally challenged and yet they are being put on probation. They are set up for failure. These people won’t ever begin to complete that.
The problem is not the probation. It’s part of what’s in the probation. You can’t have people coming to probation when they don’t have a job, when they don’t have a car.
Can you put people in jail because they don’t go to probation because they don’t go to treatment? That is criminal in itself. People who have mental health issues do not need to be in jail. They need treatment and the place to start is on the front end when we assess them. If they have mental health problems then their probation should be geared to help them solve their problems not make it worse.”
Tillman W. Payne
I support it because it’s an effort by stakeholders to come up with a way to reducethe amount of people being incarcerated.
It’s a good start but it does need to be tested to see if it works. If we find it’s not working, well, we need to find ways to improve it. We shouldn’t be waiting for the prosecutor to find out if this person needs to be in jail. I support the effort by General Sessions judges to apply cash bail in fewer circumstances and generally support cash bail only in cases of violent offenders. Nashvillians in poverty should not be spending time in jail purely because they can’t afford to get out.
Criminal Court Division II
“No one should have to go to jail because they are poor.
The release should be based on a system that will evaluate whether a person will voluntarily appear in court and the strength of the charges and a person’s history obviously will play a factor in that as well.
A risk assessment is used in the pilot project…and some pretrial supervision may be necessary. We should continue to reevaluate that as we move forward.
Whatever the case I strongly believe a person’s ability to pay money bail should not be what disallows his or her pretrial release.
It is very clear that drastic changes need to occur in our criminal justice system to insure that all people who come before the court are treated fairly and that justice is administered without consideration of race or socio-economic background.
We see a lot of people of color and a lot of poor people in our courts. Incarceration should be the last resort.
We have to address the problem. We cannot incarcerate our way out of the problem. Treatment and job training should be the priority over incarceration. We have to realize that even with incarceration at some point those who come before us are going to be released back into the community and we need to assist them at being in the best possible position of being active and productive in our communities.
I do not think they should not be strapped with additional barriers that make it hard for them to positively reenter society because that often results in re-incarceration.
We can reach out to our community partners and offer at least some level of assistance and resources in addressing those problems and the roots of those problems. “
Joy Smith Kimbrough
“I’ve seen people in power twist an turn what’s on paper and use it as a force. I believe each individual should be looked at on a case by case basis.
As long as a judge is fair, impartial, and committed to following the law, you won’t have excessive bail because bail is not meant to be punitive.
There is a problem with mass incarceration and that problem starts with the initial police stop. They stop you and for some reason they want to arrest you for something as simple as possession of marijuana.
You get into the system and then you are faced with justice that is unfamiliar to you in every way.
And they’ re thinking ‘lock ‘em up lock ‘em up lock ‘em up’ is the solution and that is what they do.
This is one that can be resolved with the vote. The mayor sets the tone with what will be allowed. You elect the elected judges.
If you continue to overlook and keep allowing judges who have a demonstrated record of over incarceration then shame on you. Shame on you!
That problem can be resolved. You need judges, you need politicians who acknowledge they have a problem, understand that, and address the problem.”