Civil rights group to city: Make changes to bail systems or prep - WSMV News 4

Civil rights group to city: Make changes to bail systems or prepare for lawsuit

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NASHVILLE, TN (WSMV) -

A civil rights group is putting the city of Nashville on notice to reform its bail system or risk being sued, internal letters obtained by the News 4 I-Team reveal.

Those letters also show the director of law for Nashville stated that the everyone from the district attorney to the sheriff has met to discuss improving the system.

In a letter sent by the Civil Rights Corps to Nashville law director Jon Cooper on June 21, the non-profit group outlines why they believe the city is creating an unfair disparity for the poor in the current bail system.

The Civil Rights Corps has sued cities across the country, challenging the system of using a secured money bail to detain poor people prior to trial.

The non-profit also successfully sued Rutherford County over its court probation programs and fees. That suit settled for a little more than $14 million.

When the group examined Nashville’s bail system, they found what they call a great disparity for the poor unable to pay for bail and remaining in jail before trial, especially in misdemeanor cases.

“Nashville's system really stands out as one of the worst systems that we've seen,” said Alec Karakatsanis, Civil Rights Corps executive director. “If you're too poor - regardless if you're not a risk to our community - you're stuck in a cage.”

Cooper responded in a letter on Sept. 29, writing that the district attorney, the public defender and the sheriff have all met to discuss the matter.

Cooper’s letter specifically discussed the city’s pre-trial release program, in which defendants can avoid paying any bail money if they qualify.

“Specifically, the DCSO (Davidson County Sheriff’s Office) will be recommending significant changes to the eligibility requirements for pre-trial release that will greatly increase the number of defendants that would qualify,” Cooper wrote in the letter.

Cooper also writes that the city is discussing partnering with Bloomberg Associates and the Marron Institute at New York University to conduct a text-messaging pilot program to generate message reminders of court dates in order to reduce the failure to appear rate.

Cooper told the I-Team he could not comment on the letters, because of the threat of a potential lawsuit from Civil Rights Corps.

“I think we're willing to sue. But we always prefer, like we've done in other places, to work with judges, to work with city and county governments,” Karakatsanis said.

Both Cooper and Karakatsanis met in Nashville on Wednesday but would not discuss their conversation. 

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