Shelby County to get new bail hearing room, with support from both Weirich and Mulroy

Article courtesy of the

Katherine Burgess
Memphis Commercial Appeal

Published 8-9-9022

Shelby County will soon have a new bail hearing room, aiming to ensure that people who are arrested receive a timely bail hearing and a fair determination of whether they can afford to make bail.

The county will pay for operating costs of the room, primarily personnel, to the tune of $2 million, along with a $1.4 million capital cost.

All of that is contingent upon the adoption of a standing bail order, which is expected to be adopted by the judges of the criminal division of the Shelby County General Sessions Courts. The judges will meet Thursday to decide whether to implement the standing order, according to a news release from the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee.

“We urge the general sessions judges to promptly enact the standing bail order so that these much-needed improvements can be implemented in Shelby County and the disproportionate impact of cash bail on people with limited incomes can be lessened,” said Stella Yarbrough, ACLU of Tennessee legal director.

Monday, when commissioners considered approval of the measure, both current Shelby County District Attorney General Amy Weirich and Shelby County District Attorney General-elect Steve Mulroy spoke in favor of the change.

“Bail hearings and the setting of bail are determined under the law to be critical stages,” Weirich said, adding that victims have the right to be present at such hearings. “That is the driving force behind my recommendation that we would need additional staff and additional resources.”

The bail hearing room was approved nearly eight months after the American Civil Liberties Union and Shelby County advocacy groups threatened to sue the county for its bail and pretrial detention practices, saying that many unable to afford bail were, after arrest, “routinely held for weeks or longer without receiving a bail hearing with counsel, and such a hearing is not provided as a matter of course but depends on whether a person’s lawyer brings a motion.”

After two days of mediated discussion, Shelby County and the “various advocacy groups” signed a memorandum of understanding “to work collectively to avoid unnecessary and costly litigation,” according to the resolution. Advocacy groups signing the original letter included the Wharton Firm, the American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of Tennessee, and Just City.

Now, judicial commissioners may only impose money bail on an arrestee after finding that release on recognizance or an unsecured bail will not “reasonably assure their future court appearance or the safety of the public.”

And, judicial commissioners will only be able to impose a secured money bail requirement “after considering an individual’s ability to pay the amount of money imposed as bail,” making the determination using a financial assessment tool administered by pretrial services.

if a judicial commissioner does plan to set an unaffordable bail, they must find pretrial detention is necessary to assure future court appearances and the safety of the community, making that decision in a public bail hearing.

“It is important that we have a criminal justice system in which defendants are given prompt bail hearings in front of a judge which the ability to pay is considered,” Mulroy said. “And this is important in addition to making sure the victims and prosecutors are also present. It is important not only as a general matter of fairness but also to be in conformity with the law.”

The bail hearing room is a “very narrow fix to a legal problem,” Mulroy said, not the overarching bail reform discussed on the campaign trail.

Ultimately, the funding for the bail hearing room was approved with the unanimous vote of all 13 Shelby County Commissioners.

All hearings in the room will be public.

“For the first time, the community and individuals who are arrested will be able to see how judicial officers decide whether presumptively innocent people are released or detained on bail,” Yarbrough said. “Public defense counsel will be appointed for those who qualify, and alleged victims will be provided notice.”

Katherine Burgess covers county government and religion. She can be reached at [email protected] or followed on Twitter @kathsburgess.