Wants to keep more accused behind barsThe Commercial AppealBy Alex Doniach Friday, January 23, 2009
As a public defender, A C Wharton fought "vehemently" for an accused criminal's presumption of innocence and right to bail.
But as the mayor of a county shaken by crime, Wharton is now pushing for a change in the state constitution that would allow Tennessee judges to deny bail and detain offenders before trial for serious crimes.
The goal, the Shelby County mayor said, is to keep more criminals off the streets and to send a message that serious crime really does mean jail time.
"It sends the wrong signal to our neighborhoods when they see individuals accused of grave and serious crimes continuing to walk the streets ... while the judicial process proceeds at a slow pace," Wharton wrote in a letter last month to Dist. Atty. Gen. Bill Gibbons and Shelby County Commission chairwoman Deidre Malone.
Wharton's idea, which has broad support within the crime-fighting community and will likely be challenged by civil liberties advocates, would require a change to the state constitution.
Currently, judges are required to set a reasonable bail unless a defendant is charged with capital murder -- a death-penalty offense.
Shelby County Commissioner Steve Mulroy, who is also a law professor at the University of Memphis, said Wharton's proposal would be a worthwhile amendment because it would bring the state constitution in line with the U.S. Constitution, which allows federal court judges to deny bail in certain cases.
Gibbons also supports the amendment, and Sheriff Mark Luttrell said he too endorses the idea because his officers are frustrated by the criminal justice system's "revolving door," which sometimes allows criminals back on streets on bail the same day they are arrested.
John Campbell, a longtime prosecutor and the assistant district attorney, said it wouldn't be used for all offenders but would detain those who pose a risk to society or who are considered the greatest risk of not showing up for court.
Wharton said over the past year he's noticed an increase in crimes committed by people on bail.
In a recent example, 21-year-old Mardacy Greer, who was out on bail after being charged with a 2006 murder, was arrested in December for the alleged killing of Nikilis Guy, 19.
Guy's dad, Ronald Guy, said he believes his son would still be alive if Greer had been denied bail. "I don't see how or why they give bonds to murderers," he said.
Richard Janikowski, a criminologist at the U of M, said there is no local data, but national statistics show that one-third of released defendants are either re-arrested, fail to appear in court as scheduled or commit some other crime. And two-thirds of those crimes are felonies.
But the idea is likely to face opposition from advocates such as Bruce Kramer, an attorney and spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union, who said bail is a fundamental constitutional right that comes with the presumption of innocence in the U.S.
"Any attempt to amend the Tennessee Constitution to lessen the rights of the people is dangerous and should not be discussed without more detail," Kramer said.
Yet this change won't happen any time soon because amending the constitution is a lengthy, multi-year process, requiring approval of the General Assembly and Tennessee voters.
Most recently, voters ratified a ban on same-sex marriage in 2006 and in 2002, they removed a prohibition on a lottery.