Cashless bail program gaining controversy ahead of launch

MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) – Shelby County’s new bail reform program officially debuts in less than a month.

It’s designed to reduce the jail population and give those without financial means a fair shake in the criminal justice system. But the transition to a new way of doing business doesn’t come without controversy or concern.

201 Poplar, the Shelby County Jail, is not a prison, it’s a pretrial holding facility. The 2,100 inmates housed there are all waiting for their day in court. But many wait months, even years for their cases to get resolved.

Shelby County is reforming its bail system, letting more defendants out of jail after their arrest, in order to ensure equity and have less disruption to the lives of the accused. Critics worry the move will jeopardize safety and further traumatize crime victims.

Midtowner Rebecca Phillips is the latest person interviewed by Action News 5 to have her car stolen in Memphis.

Her 2017 Hyundai was swiped on Jan. 16. Eight teenagers were arrested in the case: three 13-year-olds, two 15-year-olds, a 16-year-old, 17-year-old and 18-year-old David Stockard, who was also charged with having a stolen gun. 

All of the suspects were released 24 hours later, no bond required.

”It’s just unbelievable,” Phillips said. “And that’s frustrating because, you know, they’re just going to do it again.”

Shelby County District Attorney Steve Mulroy said the county’s new cashless bail program will bring equity and equality to the justice system.

”There will be a lot fewer people who really shouldn’t be behind bars,” said Mulroy, “and are only there because they can’t afford cash bail. What the standing bail order provides is that after someone is arrested, within 72 hours, they will get a prompt bail hearing in front of a judicial commissioner.”

Judicial commissioners are appointed by the Shelby County Commission. They are not elected by the people like the General Sessions Criminal Court judges are.

Pretrial staff will use an Affordable Bail Calculator to figure out the defendant’s financial status. What are their assets? What is their income?

“They will use a calculator provided by the Vera Institute of Justice,” said Mulroy, “which is the pre-eminent criminal justice reform organization in the country. Taking into account the defendant’s individualized financial circumstances has never been done in Shelby County before.”

The pretrial staff also fill out a Bail Setting Form, looking at previous convictions, warrants and current charges to determine a defendant’s PSA Score.

As D.A. Mulroy said, a judicial commissioner, not a judge, uses that score to decide if any bail should be set.

ROR, or “released on one’s own recognizance,” is the preferred outcome.

Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland, already fed up with what he calls the “revolving door” at 201, worries letting more suspects out of jail will only worsen the city’s crime problems.

”I’m mad as hell and I’m not gonna take it anymore,” the Mayor told Action News 5. “The court system through low bonds, slow trials and weak sentences are putting our safety at risk, and it needs to stop.”

But an ACLU report offering bail reform recommendations to Shelby County found for those released ROR: “instances of pretrial flight or violence are very rare even among those accused of felonies.”

That does little to ease Rebecca Phillips’ mind, since the teens charged with stealing her car are now back on the street.

”They’re being reckless to other people on the road,” she said, “and that’s so dangerous. And then to have a gun!”

Shelby County’s bail program is undergoing this transformation because the ACLU and Just City threatened to sue if the system did not comply with the constitution and Tennessee law.

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