The head of the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee paid a visit to Chattanooga on Thursday night, walking a small group of interested community members through the organization's work to reduce mass incarceration, among other things.
A couple of dozen residents gathered in a small auditorium at the Chattanooga Library downtown and sat quietly as Hedy Weinberg, executive director of the ACLU-TN, told them about the importance of taking a vested interest in the far-reaching effects of criminal justice in the United States.
She underscored the gravity of the situation by pointing to a variety of statistics, saying the national incarceration rate is dramatically higher than any other country in the world and those who find themselves behind bars are disproportionately poor or people of color.
"Your experience with the criminal justice system is vastly different depending on your race and your economic status," she said.
Weinberg also pointed back to national policy changes toward the end of the 20th century that she said had a significant impact on the number of people who find themselves behind bars. The War on Drugs, she argued, put away hundreds of thousands of nonviolent people, many of whom have cycled in and out of prison because of shortcomings in probation and parole systems.
"These measures were driven in part by the political expediency of what we call 'being tough on crime,'" she said. "Not only do we have more people sent to prison for longer periods of time, but we also know that once you're let out of prison or go on parole, you're likely to go back."
The ACLU, she said, has focused in recent years on addressing some of those issues by focusing on "front-end reforms" that could cut down on the number of people who enter the criminal justice system, as well as "back-end reforms" concerning things such as sentencing and alternative options to incarceration.
One of the targets of those reform initiatives is the jail bonding system which, she said, punishes people who are too poor to get out even when they're eligible for release.
"If someone is eligible for bail, they certainly shouldn't be kept in jail ahead of their hearing just because they can't afford to pay the fine," she said. "The research shows that requiring people to put money down is not any more effective than just staying in touch with the individual."
Weinberg also took questions from the audience about the ACLU's stances on gerrymandering and President Donald Trump's various attempts to enact a Muslim ban.
Nancy Doyle, a "longstanding member of the ACLU" who said she just recently moved to Chattanooga, asked about firearms.
"What's the ACLU's position on 2nd Amendment rights?" she asked Weinberg.
Weinberg told her the 2nd Amendment is part of the Bill of Rights, but there was no question in her mind that there are "restrictions and regulations" that can reasonably be placed on gun owners.
"Is there a list somewhere of the regulations that the ACLU supports?" Doyle asked.
"I just sent it to the board the other day and I'm going to have a conversation with our national office because I'd like to post them online," Weinberg replied. "I think that's a very good idea."
Contact staff writer Emmett Gienapp at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6731. Follow him on Twitter @emmettgienapp.