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TN Lawmakers to Consider Constitutional Change Allowing Judges to Refuse Bail for More Violent Offenses

Tennessee lawmakers intend to propose a new amendment to the state Constitution that could reduce bail eligibility for some who face criminal charges.

Republican leaders introduced the idea on Friday at a press conference in Memphis, where there is sizable, local bipartisan support for it.

At present, the state’s Constitution grants the right to bail for anyone charged with a crime except in the case of a “capital offense” such as first degree murder “when the proof is evident.”

But Tennessee House Speaker Cameron Sexton says that judges should have the discretion to outright deny bail for other categories and cases of alleged violent crime.

Although lawmakers have not yet finalized which offenses an amendment would cover, Sexton says that judges will have to justify their actions.

“We also want to insert [language] that when they do deny or accept bail, that they have to tell us why they did or did not, which gives you transparency of understanding why that decision was made and hopefully comfort that it’s not being abused,” Sexton said.

Several Memphis Democratic officials, including Mayor Paul Young and Representative Antonio Parkinson, joined Sexton in announcing the proposal. They emphasized the bipartisan appeal of the measure as a way to increase public safety.

“I’m thankful that Memphis is the backdrop,” said Parkinson, who represents parts of the city’s north. “This is not one of those things where, you know, people can say that...the state legislature is forcing their will on the city of Memphis.”

But criminal reform advocates like Josh Spickler argue that changing a right guaranteed in Tennessee's Constitution is not a solution to concerns about crime.

“Bail has become a boogeyman. Bail has become a dirty word – a word that everyone immediately associates with crime rates, and there is just no evidence,” Spickler, who heads the organization Just City, said. “When those lawmakers stood up in front of us today, no one provided any evidence that reforming bail in the way that they propose is going to change things.”

Amending the state Constitution is a lengthy process. A proposal would have to pass in two successive legislative sessions and ultimately it would be up to voters who would decide on it during a statewide election.

Katie is a part-time WKNO contributor. She's always eager to hear your story ideas. You can email her at kriordan@wkno.org