New grand jury aims to speed up indictments, help Shelby County jail backlog

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MEMPHIS, Tenn. — On average, Shelby County spends more than $100 million a year housing inmates in our jails. The majority of those people haven’t been convicted of the crime.

“What we know about people who await trial in custody is after about 36 hours, their lives begin to unravel. They lose cars, they lose jobs, they lose homes,” said Josh Spicker, executive director of Just City.

County officials say the number of people behind bars has grown in recent years at the two Shelby County jails. Currently, it’s close to 3,000.

“That detainee population has grown overtime, and right now we face a backlog. So trying to reduce that backlog is a really top priority,” said Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris.

Which is why he’s happy the county’s adding a third grand jury.

Now, about 70 more misdemeanor and felony cases will be heard each week. Bringing it to a total of about 270 cases a week.

The new grand jury has met twice so far.

The hope is to make indictments happen sooner and get people through the system faster.

“Most of those who are detained pending a trial are there because they don’t have the money to bail themselves out, so if we could process those cases faster a lot of folks could be released that don’t pose a safety risk,” said Mayor Harris.

Fewer inmates also makes the jail environment safer for employees, guards and other defendants.

Mayor Harris says the money saved could instead go to education, healthcare and other services beneficial for the community.

“There are huge amounts at stake if we can reduce this backlog.”

But Spickler says it won’t solve the bigger problem.

“It’s going to get people trials faster and that’s good, but it’s not going to get us to the type of system that we need, one that keeps us safer and costs less and drags fewer people into it,” said Spickler.

County officials say they’re also working on tackling the root of the problem.

District Attorney Amy Weirich released the following statement:

“The addition of a third grand jury increases the number of cases our office must prepare each week, but it also will help move those cases through the justice system in a timely manner and that’s important to the community and especially to the victims of crime.”

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