Tennessee magistrates would be unable to consider financial circumstances when setting bail under proposed bill

State Rep. John Gillespie, R-Memphis, leans on a desk on the House floor during a special session of the state legislature in 2023. He is proposing to remove a defendant's financial condition as a consideration in setting bail amounts. (AP Photo/George Walker IV)
State Rep. John Gillespie, R-Memphis, leans on a desk on the House floor during a special session of the state legislature in 2023. He is proposing to remove a defendant's financial condition as a consideration in setting bail amounts. (AP Photo/George Walker IV)

Under a proposed Tennessee law, people accused of crimes would no longer have their income or financial situation considered when bail is set.

The legislation is meant to allow law enforcement, district attorneys and others one more tool to fight crime, state Rep. John Gillespie, R-Memphis, said Tuesday during the House Criminal Justice Subcommittee.

"Right now, at least where I live, there is quite the revolving door of people going in and out of the criminal justice system," said Gillespie, who brought House Bill 1719.

Magistrates must consider a series of facts and circumstances, including community ties, employment status and criminal records when determining the appropriate amount of bail, according to state law.

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Gillespie said the bill, which was introduced Jan. 10, would remove consideration of a person's economic status from the equation.

Any Tennessee court must set bail as low as is necessary to reasonably assure a defendant's appearance at future court dates, according to state statute.

The Eighth Amendment to the U.S Constitution says "excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted."

State Rep. Gloria Johnson, D-Knoxville, said Tuesday she spoke with attorneys who believe the proposed law may be unconstitutional. Johnson worries removing the financial aspect when it's clearly outlined might be a step in the wrong direction, she said.

"Our Constitution is very clear about reasonable bail," Johnson said.

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State Rep. William Lamberth, R-Portland, voiced his support of the bill. Lamberth said it seems like, in some circumstances, a person's ability to pay bail is given more importance than all of the other considerations combined.

Last year, there were 398 homicides in Memphis, Lamberth said. He referenced an 18-year-old Shelby County man charged with first-degree murder who was released from jail on his own recognizance.

It's ridiculous to place more importance on a person's ability to pay than the safety of the public, Lamberth said.

"That's 398 families, 398 lives lost, 398 families that will suffer for generations," Lamberth said.

Contact Sofia Saric at ssaric@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6476.


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