Tennessee politicians propose state constitutional amendment to expand pretrial detention News
Thomas R Machnitzki, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Tennessee politicians propose state constitutional amendment to expand pretrial detention

A bipartisan group of Tennessee state legislators unveiled a proposed state constitutional amendment on Friday to grant judges more discretion to detain individuals without bail before trial for specific violent criminal charges.

Tennessee House Speaker Cameron Sexton (R-District 25) made the announcement at Memphis City Hall, flanked by Memphis’ Mayor Paul Young (D), Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson (R-District 27), a number of state legislators representing Memphis and Shelby County, local law enforcement officials and Shelby County District Attorney Steve Mulroy (D).

Sexton stated:

There’s a lot of cases all across our state that you’ve seen, not just in Memphis, but all across our state, of someone who is out on bail who is a violent criminal who committed another violent crime shortly thereafter that took another victim.

Currently, the Tennessee Constitution permits judges to deny bail only for charges that carry the possibility of the death penalty, typically limited to first-degree murder cases.

Rep. Antonio Parkinson (D-Memphis) supported the announcement saying:

A mother who has lost a son to violent crime, she does not care if you’re Democrat or Republican, … When I speak to the mothers or the parents of a constituent in Cordova whose daughter might have gone through a violent rape or a sexual assault, they don’t care if you’re Democrat or Republican.

Despite the bipartisan support, the proposal faces criticism from some advocates who argue that it won’t effectively address the crime issues in Memphis and the broader state. Rep. Justin Pearson (D-District 81), one of the two state legislators expelled last year due to a House floor protest advocating for gun control and later reinstated, dismissed the proposed amendment as a “useless amendment related to bail that doesn’t address the devastation of violence in our communities.” He urged Republicans to repeal permitless carry laws in Tennessee and establish a fully funded violence prevention office.

Stand for Children Tennessee, a group that advocates for issues such as racial justice, echoed similar views saying:

This is not ‘bail reform’ — it’s an extremist attack on constitutional rights and fundamental American values that are supposed to be based on being innocent until proven guilty, … It will not fix any problem that exists, and it will not make us safer.

For the amendment to become part of the state constitution, it must successfully pass both the Tennessee State House and Senate, during one two-year General Assembly, and then pass by at least two-thirds of the vote in the second round in both chambers. The amendment would then go on a general election ballot.

The Eighth Amendment of the US Constitution bans excessive bail or fines. However, the US Supreme Court has ruled that denial of bail is constitutional. According to a 2022 policy brief from the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), over 20 states have amended their constitutional bail provisions, enabling expanded pretrial detention through a variety of ways.