Tennessee House Speaker pushes constitutional amendment on bail

Published 3:19 pm Thursday, February 8, 2024

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By Sam Stockard

Tennessee Lookout

Continuing a tough-on-crime mantra, House Speaker Cameron Sexton is sponsoring a constitutional amendment that would give judges more leeway to hold violent criminals without bail.

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Sexton and a bipartisan group of lawmakers announced the plan in a recent Memphis press conference where they explained the amendment would enable the judiciary to hold defendants without bail on offenses such as child rape, especially aggravated kidnapping and second-degree murder. Under current law, judges can deny bail only for capital murder.

The measure would also “add transparency” in these cases by requiring judges to explain the reasons for denying or allowing bail, according to Sexton’s office.

“There are examples from all across our state of violent criminals, even repeat violent criminals making bail and then reoffending while out on bail,” Sexton said in a statement. “We are looking forward to working with Majority Leader (Jack) Johnson and the General Assembly to build safer communities across Tennessee.”

Gov. Bill Lee spent his initial years in office pushing criminal justice reforms. Before taking office, Lee was on the board of Men of Valor, a prison ministry helping people re-enter society after serving their time.

But over the past two years, Republican lawmakers, led by Sexton, started rolling back many of Lee’s criminal justice reforms and enacting tougher sentencing laws. Sexton has cited rising crime, particularly in Memphis, as the reason for the policy shift. But most of his solutions revolve around those already convicted or charged, while crime statistics gathered by the FBI show across the state violent crimes involving guns jumped each time lawmakers passed legislation weakening gun laws.

Josh Spickler, executive director of Just City Memphis, questioned the need for the amendment, which would need to pass in two consecutive sessions of the General Assembly and then receive a majority vote of the next gubernatorial election.

“The Tennessee Constitution is not the problem. Judges have plenty of discretion as it stands to make bail decisions. They have discretion to set unaffordable bail in certain circumstances as long as they follow the law and the Constitution,” Spickler said, calling Sexton’s measure “political theater” during an election year.

Spickler said the Legislature could reduce crime in places such as Memphis and Shelby County by expanding Medicaid, passing “common-sense” gun control and providing more funds for K-12 education, in addition to food programs.

House Democratic Caucus Chairman John Ray Clemmons of Nashville echoed those concerns.

“Public safety is everyone’s priority,” Clemmons said recently, but he noted there is no bipartisan support for the effort to change the Constitution, which hasn’t been done since 1796 in regard to bail, one of the original rights in the state document.

Shelby County District Attorney General Steve Mulroy, who has been criticized by Sexton but joined him in the recent announcement, in seeking the death penalty against Cleotha Abston, the man charged with kidnapping and killing Memphis school teacher Eliza Fletcher in early September 2022. Sexton pointed out recently his bail amendment has more to do with judges than prosecutors by expanding their ability to deny bail. He noted the measure provides “clarity” by showing that defendants aren’t receiving “special treatment” when setting bail.

The November death of Belmont University student Jillian Ludwig, killed by a stray bullet while walking on a school track, has also contributed to the push for the amendment.

House Majority Leader William Lamberth called it the “added option” judges need to keep the “most dangerous individuals” in jail before court appearances, especially those with long criminal histories.

“Most of these folks, it’s the revolving door in some of our communities, unfortunately, for violence crime after violent crime,” said Lamberth, a Portland Republican.

Lamberth contended Memphis had nearly 400 homicides last year and argued it’s time to take steps to bolster safety, though state law already gives judges authority to deny bail in first-degree murder cases.