ACLU of Tennessee Launches Campaign to Shine a Light on Money Bail Practices in Rural Tennessee Counties

ACLU-TN's "In Our Backyards" Storytelling Project Lifts Voices of Directly-Impacted Tennesseans

Affiliate: ACLU of Tennessee
April 12, 2021 3:45 pm

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Today the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee launched its “In Our Backyards: Money Bail in Rural Tennessee” storytelling campaign, which shines a light on the impact of predatory money bail practices in rural counties across the state. This campaign aims to raise awareness of the impact of money bail by centering the voices and stories of rural Tennesseans who have experienced firsthand the consequences of being caught in the criminal justice system because they cannot afford to make bail. The project features stories from individuals in McMinn, Warren and Obion counties.

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. According to one Vera Institute of Justice study, 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 per capita rates of incarceration.

“Money bail has created a two-tiered system of justice in Tennessee that has been shown to disproportionately harm people of color, people living below the poverty line, and people who are unhoused,” said Hedy Weinberg, executive director of the ACLU of Tennessee. “People who do not have the resources to make bail should not have to stay in jail simply because of their financial state. The increased reliance on wealth-based pretrial detention in rural counties is particularly concerning, as these are the same communities that are already struggling to contend with high rates of poverty, opioid use and other addiction issues – not to mention the rapid spread and mortality rate of COVID-19, which can be even worse behind bars. The powerful voices shared in the report shine a light on the impact of predatory money bail practices in rural counties across the state and remind us that it is well past time for significant bail reform.”

The campaign, funded by a grant from the Vera Institute of Justice, includes videos and written narratives collected in three rural counties in Tennessee: McMinn County in East Tennessee, Warren County in Middle Tennessee and Obion County in West Tennessee. ACLU-TN staff interviewed local community members who had direct experience with their county’s money bail system, from the judges, public defenders and advocates who work in county jails and courtrooms, to the people who find themselves stuck behind bars and the family members who empty bank accounts to bail them out.

“The words and experiences of the rural community members we interviewed strongly reinforce the immediate need to transform our state’s bail system,” said Claire Gardner, ACLU of Tennessee senior community engagement strategist. “Their stories, which they so courageously agreed to share, are inspiring, but also heartbreaking, infuriating and, unfortunately, not at all uncommon in this state. We are grateful to each of our storytellers for sharing their voices so that their fellow Tennesseans can better understand the irreparable harm our wealth-based pretrial justice system inflicts on rural Tennessee communities. It is critical that lawmakers heed the words of their constituents and neighbors about our state’s desperate need for bail reform.”

Over the past few months, ACLU-TN also hosted a series of virtual community forums in six counties – McMinn, Warren, Obion, Haywood, Greene and Putnam – to debut the videos and encourage community discussion of local money bail practices and alternatives to pretrial detention. Forum participants, all residents in rural communities, indicated their desire for money bail reform and their eagerness to engage with lawmakers and other decisionmakers about potential reforms.

The “In Our Backyards” campaign website includes videos and written narratives highlighting storytellers across rural Tennessee; information about each county’s incarceration rates; and resources from the ACLU, the Vera Institute, and other organizations about money bail practices in the United States and Tennessee. The website also includes a link to a survey where community members from across Tennessee can submit their own thoughts, concerns, and experiences with their county’s bail system, as well as information about money bail reform legislation.

ACLU-TN’s “In Our Backyards” campaign website can be found at: https://www.aclu-tn.org/bail-in-our-backyards/.

More information about the Vera Institute of Justice’s “In Our Backyards” project and data on incarceration rates in all Tennessee counties can be found at: http://www.vera.org/projects/in-our-backyards.

This press release can be found online at: https://www.aclu-tn.org/aclu-tn-launches-in-our-backyards-rural-bail-storytelling-project/.

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