MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Some 2,000 people are locked up in Shelby County unable to pay their bail. But several community organizations are planning to go to court if things don’t change.

Now they are calling for those arrested to get hearings in 24 hours, with counsel, bail imposed only as a last resort and a person’s financial situation be considered before any bail hearing.

“An unaffordable bail is not okay. It’s not constitutional and none of this is in keeping with state law,” said Josh Spickler, who heads up the jail reform group Just City.

His organization, The ACLU and the Wharton Law Firm have put county officials on notice they will file a lawsuit if there is no bail reform.

“State law says bail should be the last consideration we have, that release of one sort or another should be considered before bail. And we’re doing the opposite. We flip-flop that we consider bail first,” said Spickler.

He said any amount of bail preys particularly on the poor and Blacks, who are the majority of those in jail.

“A $100 bail, I think, is an example of that. If this system sets a $100 bail, what it’s saying is we recognize your poverty. We recognize that you’re no risk to this community. And we recognize that you’re not at risk of flight. You’re not at risk of not coming back to court, but we’re going to put this very, very minimal amount of money between you and your liberty between you and your freedom,” said Spickler.

He says bail is issued if you are worried people won’t come back to court or may commit another crime.
But there is another way to determine that.

A few years ago Shelby County began using a Public Safety Assessment score tool to determine a person’s flight risk, but Just City said the county still didn’t change the bail system.

Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris’ office said they support reform that reduces the reliance on cash bail, and a person should be detained because they are a risk, not because they are poor.

Those behind this push cite similar lawsuits across the state that have resulted in meaningful change — change they now want here. Spickler thinks they have a “very strong” case.

Those pushing to change the bail system have given county leaders until the end of December to respond to their request for discussions. If that doesn’t happen, they plan to move forward with their lawsuit.