I recently attended the Hamblen County Commission meeting on March 24, 2022. I signed up to do public forum on a couple of issues. Normally you get three minutes for public forum, but if you sign up in advance, you get five minutes. I did the latter. As I usually do, I prepared my remarks in writing, estimating them to come in at about five minutes. I didn’t get to all of the remarks, though, so I thought I’d throw the whole thing up here.
I want to address the budget and the jail.
First, I attended the Ambulance Authority Board meeting yesterday and heard the presentation from Director Danny Houseright to the Board. I understand Director Houseright may have met with Mayor Brittain today on the future of Morristown-Hamblen EMS.
I came away from the meeting more convinced by the Director of the urgency of the matter than the Board was, unfortunately. They’re going to have a meeting next Wednesday at noon as a follow up. I plan on being there and I think as many of you as possible should attend. The state of our EMS is dire and I believe it’s going to require funding from County Commission, City Council or both. Bottom line, the EMTs need to be paid more. The work here is busier and more stressful than in neighboring counties, but the pay is less. The EMS is losing people at an unsustainable rate.
I was talking to my wife about this matter and that I was going to speak on this subject tonight. She’s an OB/GYN and works with EMS frequently. I hear from her about the difficulties she has in getting patients transported. She praises all the time how the EMTs and the folks responsible for transport go above and beyond the call of duty. But they are stretched too thin. As I understand it, our EMS has 12 open positions right now. The only way we are going to keep from losing more people and to hopefully start filling some of those empty spots is to pay them more.
We have the lowest pay in the region for our EMTs. Director Houseright sees this and he wants to increase their pay. The Board yesterday, though, dithered and put the decision off a week. Budget season is coming, so I want to urge you and the mayor and the city to get together and save our EMS. However it needs to happen, you need to make sure that these men and women get competitive pay. Give them a reason to stay here in Hamblen County.
Second, Hamblen County, unfortunately like a lot of counties in Tennessee, has a cash bail system that ends up trapping poor people in jail because they cannot afford to purchase their release. The judge and judicial commissioners in Hamblen County routinely impose unaffordable cash bail amounts. In a county where one in five residents lives below the poverty level, these cash bail amounts are essentially detention orders.
I’m sure we’re all aware of the state of our jail. The national coverage of the atrocious conditions over there that’s been a black eye for Hamblen County. How that’s brought us to this discord over a new $100 million dollar Justice Center.
I think you can draw a direct line in the jail conditions and the back breaking debt of this new justice center back to our cash bail system. Certainly I believe that at least part of the overcrowding at the Hamblen Jail is a direct result of that system.
So, Consider this…
If your criminal justice system is running the way it should, cash bail would be only one part of the system for how you deal with people accused of crimes. The default should be for those accused of crimes to be released on recognizance because they have local ties or based on other factors. Instead, what do we do? We prop up the bail bond industry and assign bail in all cases. [note here that I didn’t include in my public comments – one of the Hamblen County Commissioners owns a Bail Bond company].
Yes, I said all. In case you didn’t know, the Vera Institute of Justice did a study and found that Hamblen County was one of only 25 out of the 95 counties in Tennessee that reported zero releases on recognizance in 2019. I think, not coincidentally, February 2020 is when we were sued for our cash bail practices.
Let’s look at the implications for the Hamblen County taxpayer in all of this.
$100 million dollar justice center. We’re saddled with that, no thank you very much.
A cash bail system which detains more people than it should for longer than necessary. That’s not free in money or manpower costs.
Insurance premiums are going to rise. Right? Because it’s attorneys for the insurance company who are defending the Hamblen County officials who are embroiled in this ongoing, so far two year long, class action lawsuit.
And when the defendants lose (and I think they will), there’s a good chance Hamblen County could be paying their attorneys fees. Or does it come from the insurance company. You would know that better than I. Just FYI, I’d look at a very similar case which Giles County Tennessee lost. The attorneys fees for the plaintiffs were 7 figures in that case.
[I summed up here not from my notes and didn’t include the following lines. I had planned to use them if the commissioners tried to derail me because I was talking about pending litigation. Plus I was getting close to the time limit].
You certainly can’t say that this Commission can do nothing with regard to the cash bail practices in Hamblen County.
Back in November 2019, this body passed a resolution “declaring support of the 2nd amendment to the United States Constitution.” So you’re clearly interested in supporting the constitution and consider passing a resolution supporting one of the 10 amendments of the Bill of Rights to the Constitution as appropriate for your time and attention.
Well, how about the 5th amendment? It says “no person shall be deprived of life liberty or property without due process of law.”
How about the 6th amendment which says “the accused shall have the assistance of counsel for his defense.”
Or the 8th amendment which says that “Excessive bail shall not be required.”
The cash bail practices in Hamblen County are unconstitutional. It is Hamblen County officials who have decided to violate the constitutional rights of those of accused of crimes. Certainly the Hamblen County Commission can do something about that, even if it’s just to issue a non-binding resolution in support of the 5th, 6th or 8th Amendments to the Constitution.