Sullivan County has a crisis on its hands. As I write these words (Sept. 20) there are 1,053 inmates in the Sullivan County jail. Anyone paying attention knows that our jail is only designed to house around 620 inmates. It would seem that we are at capacity. This is not a new problem. I do not think there could be any greater exclamation point on this situation than our own Sheriff Jeff Cassidy standing before the Sullivan County commission and acknowledging that we are violating the Constitutional rights of inmates every single day. I think it was courageous for Sheriff Cassidy to make such admission, and he should be commended for it. It is only a matter of time before Sullivan County is defending a lawsuit based on those admissions.
Overcrowding aside, our current jail is woefully inadequate, poorly designed, and in violation of federal statutes. Overcrowding exacerbates these problems.
In the interest of full disclosure, I have been opposed to the construction of a new jail, not as the district public defender but as a taxpayer in Sullivan County. My fiscally conservative nature causes a knee-jerk reaction in opposition to anything that will place additional burdens on the taxpayer. However, it appears that the time has come that we as a county must act before there is serious injury, a death, or lawsuits against the county. Recently county officials were informed by consultants hired to advise us on the jail that we are 2 ½ to 3 years away from either a brand new jail or completed renovations of the current jail facility. We must act now to alleviate overcrowding while we are awaiting a physical solution.
Of the 1,053 inmates in our jail, roughly 60% are “pretrial” inmates; they have not had their cases adjudicated before any court. They are citizens accused with a presumption of innocence. This is approximately 630 inmates who are awaiting trial. Of the 630 there are 297 who have pending probation violations and 333 who have not been convicted of the crimes for which they have been accused. These citizens accused are in pretrial custody because they are unable to afford whatever cash bond has been set by the court. Eliciting sympathy from the public for someone wasting away in jail is difficult, however it is hard not to feel some sense of injustice when you hear that someone is in limbo for 10 to 12 months waiting on their case to be resolved. For some time now I have been advocating bail bond reform to our courts. The situation that we have created is one that disproportionally effects our less affluent neighbors. Simply put: accused citizens who come from families of means are able to afford bond, those who don’t can’t afford bond and languish in jail. Ultimately our reliance on a cash bond system has created a two-tiered system of justice.
This is not a problem unique to Sullivan County. Many other jurisdictions have been dealing with the same situation. Many jurisdictions have utilized reform of the cash bail bonds system to alleviate overcrowding in their local jails. From California to Washington, D.C., and everywhere in between the cash bail bond system has been under scrutiny, and the trend is moving toward abolishing the practice. Even here in Tennessee there is a Republican-sponsored bill pending before our legislature that would do away with or limit the use of cash bail bonds.
Recently, a representative from my office, County Attorney Dan Street, and representatives from the Sheriff’s Office traveled to Knox County to observe their pretrial release program. Knox County has learned what many other jurisdictions have learned over the past several years and that is that it is much more cost effective and more equitable to release citizens accused on their own recognizance, requiring no cash payment, pending trial. This could be done through use of a risk assessment tool and actual physical supervision with monthly or weekly appearances by the citizen accused or through some technological means, i.e., an ankle monitoring device. Knox County currently has 1,000 folks participating in their pretrial release program and has around a 10% “failure” rate — failure being defined as someone not appearing for court or committing new offenses while on pretrial release. If I’m correct, that’s a 90% success rate — an outstanding return for any government program. It is my understanding that Mr. Street and officials from the jail are working with some of our local legislators to apply for grants that are available from the state and would pay for just such a program, or at least offset the cost.
What this means for Sullivan County is that we could immediately open the relief valve on the inmate population by implementing some sort of bail bond reform. Releasing citizens accused who are being held on nonviolent crimes on own recognizance bonds would bring our numbers down closer to the jails actual capacity. This would be a cost-saving measure for the county because the jail is no longer responsible for housing, feeding, or providing medical care.
There is opposition to reforming our cash bail bond system from within our justice system. Bail bondsmen oppose any reform, but they are not alone in their opposition. Warehousing citizens accused in jail with high bonds until resolution of their cases result in fewer trials and more guilty pleas. It is “easier” to resolve a case with a plea if that citizen accused has been incarcerated pretrial for a long period of time. Any experienced criminal defense attorney will tell you anecdotally that they have had clients enter a plea of guilty while maintaining their innocence merely to be released from jail. This should never be the case in our justice system.
Sullivan County needs a new jail, but we also need to eliminate or reform the use of cash bonds to grant immediate relief to our jail.