Bail Reform Advocates Present to Joint Senate and House Committee on Need to Fix Tennessee’s Bail System

Media Contact: Abby Silverman | 978-273-3875 |

Nashville, TN (September 14, 2021): On Monday, Jasmine Heiss from the Vera Institute of Justice and Willie Santana from the Duncan School of Law at Lincoln Memorial University presented to the Joint Senate Judiciary and House Criminal Justice Committee to Study Bail Reform. Over two days of testimony, lawmakers heard various perspectives on pretrial justice and the private bail industry. All available evidence points to the conclusion that Tennessee’s bail system is in dire need of reform – it is unconstitutional and expensive, generating profits for the bail industry at the expense of the state’s poorest citizens and all Tennessee taxpayers and eroding community safety.

Over the past decade, jail populations and jail spending have been rising in Tennessee. According to a Vera Institute of Justice analysis of available data from the Tennessee Administrative Office of the Courts, in 2019, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, most Tennessee counties overwhelmingly relied on surety bail and rarely released people without money bail.

While Tennessee reduced the number of people in jail by 31 percent in March and April 2020—during the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic— pretrial detention has begun to climb sharply. While total jail populations have increased by only 15 percent since a low in spring 2020, the number of unconvicted people detained pretrial is rising more sharply, up 39 percent.

This pretrial growth is driven by a money bail system. Surety bond predominates as the most common form of bond in many parts of Tennessee, forcing poor people to scrape together enough money to pay a non-refundable fee to a bail bondsman to secure their freedom. In fact, in 2019, Tennesseans in just 84 counties paid approximately $46.4 million to the bail bonds industry to secure their release from jail. And, in FY2019, these same 84 counties spent over $285 million on jail incarceration, $143 million of which was spent on pretrial detention. This enormous cost to Tennessee taxpayers fails to capture the collateral costs to families and communities, including the loss of employment, housing, and family ties that come from unnecessary detention.

“Surety bail, which seems to be the default in most Tennessee counties, is meant to be a last resort and a carefully limited exception. The current pretrial system in Tennessee is expensive, unconstitutional, and does not deliver community safety,” said Jasmine Heiss, the Director of the In Our Backyards Initiative at the Vera Institute of Justice. “In order to prevent future harm and violence, Tennessee should look holistically at reforms to the money bail and pretrial justice systems and invest in community-based responses to poverty and root causes of crime.”

The Vera Institute of Justice is powered by hundreds of advocates, researchers, and activists working to transform the criminal legal and immigration systems until they’re fair for all. Founded in 1961 to advocate for alternatives to money bail in New York City, Vera is now a national organization that partners with impacted communities and government leaders for change. We develop just, antiracist solutions so that money doesn’t determine freedom; fewer people are in jails, prisons, and immigration detention; and everyone is treated with dignity. Vera’s headquarters is in Brooklyn, New York, with offices in Washington, DC, New Orleans, and Los Angeles.