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Activists Urge Tennessee Supreme Court To Reduce Jail Populations Amid COVID-19 Spike

Several criminal justice reform groups are urging the Tennessee Supreme Court to release people from jails and juvenile detention centers.

The emergency motion, filed Tuesday, cites a recent surge in COVID-19 cases in the state, as well as unsafe conditions in some facilities.

“[T]he majority of people incarcerated in county jail facilities and juvenile detention centers have not been found guilty of anything,” attorneys from the Choosing Justice Initiative wrote. “Exposing anyone — much less people who are presumed innocent and awaiting trial — to a greater risk of contracting COVID-19 than they would face in the community, in conditions where they cannot protect themselves, is wrong.”

More: Read the emergency motion.

A similar motion was denied this spring, because the court had already asked individual districts to reduce their jail populations, and many people were released. In Nashville, the public defender, the district attorney and the sheriff worked together to shrink the number of people in county jails by 15%.

But since then, the number of people in jails across the state has gone up again — from 19,126 on April 21 to 24,599 on Oct. 31, according to the motion. Jails in more than 20 of the state’s 95 counties were at or above capacity, as well, the attorneys write.

“When a jail is at or over its capacity, it is impossible for people detained there to socially distance, or to comply with most of the CDC recommendations for preventing the spread of COVID-19,” the motion states. “With the pandemic now at its worst, jails, juvenile detention centers and prisons … are some of the most dangerous places to be.”

Hundreds of people in Tennessee jails have tested positive for the coronavirus. In Nashville, at least one woman being held u in pretrial detention died in August.

The petition asks the Supreme Court to require each judicial district to submit a new plan to reduce the number of people in their jails and juvenile detention centers. The attorneys say those plans should:

  • Eliminate high bail amounts when releasing someone from custody wouldn’t pose a major safety or flight risk
  • Release people from jail who are medically vulnerable, unless “confinement is absolutely necessary”
  • Reduce jail and juvenile detention center populations to 50% capacity or less to allow for social distancing as long until the end of the pandemic

The motion also asks the court to ensure that officials across the state are taking the necessary precautions to minimize the risk of COVID-19 outbreaks by following CDC guidelines, and to mandate that judicial districts track coronavirus data.

The Supreme Court tightened its own COVID-19 protocols this week with a new emergency order that limits in-person proceedings through early 2021. But the order did not include strategies to prevent the spread of the virus in jails. 

Samantha Max is a Report for America corps member.

Copyright 2020 WPLN News

Samantha Max covers criminal justice for WPLN and joins the newroom through the Report for America program. This is her second year with Report for America: She spent her first year in Macon, Ga., covering health and inequity for The Telegraph and macon.com.