News & Events

PUBLIC DEFENDER STATEMENT REGARDING FILING AND DENIAL OF EMERGENCY
PETITION SEEKING RELEASE OF PEOPLE CHARGED WITH NON-VIOLENT OFFENSES
IN NASHVILLE
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Extreme circumstances call for extraordinary solutions. For weeks we have been required to live
our lives following the specific guidance provided by our country’s leaders and the Centers for
Disease Control (CDC) concerning social distancing and the need to flatten the curve related to
the spread of the COVID-19 virus. Additionally, we have learned more about how this novel
coronavirus is spread, particularly in congregate environments and amongst persons who are
asymptomatic. Our community’s new reality has exposed the challenges in safeguarding our
community members who live and work in Nashville’s jails against the spread of COVID-19.
Therefore, On April 3, 2020, Chief Public Defender Martesha L. Johnson filed an emergency
petition asking for the release of certain categories of individuals from Nashville’s jails amid the
global COVID-19 pandemic. This request came after weeks of advocating for the individual
release of people from custody and was in response to a plea by Sheriff Daron Hall to reduce the
jail population in Nashville. Because national and local experts agree that this disease has the
potential to be fatal to vulnerable populations and because positive cases of COVID-19 have been
reported in Nashville’s jail, we believe time is of the essence in accelerating efforts to mitigate
harm to incarcerated persons and corrections staff.

Despite our disappointment in our requests being denied, we are grateful for the review of our
petition by the Criminal Court Judges and the opportunity to raise awareness to this issue in
General Sessions this morning. As public defenders it is our continued duty to speak out on behalf
of our clients and to bring attention to issues that impact the administration of justice in Nashville.
This important hearing emphasized that the enhanced risk of a COVID-19 outbreak in our jails,
just like other congregate environments like nursing homes or dormitories, means an enhanced
risk of increasing outbreak in our community as a whole. Dr. Jennifer Gaddy, an expert in
microbiology and infectious diseases, cautioned that an outbreak will overwhelm the capacity of
the jails, increase the spread of COVID-19 in the larger community, and contribute to
overwhelming local hospitals. Sheriff Daron Hall’s testimony identified how one positive case
has crippled the housing capacity in two of his facilities. Despite taking steps toward risk
mitigation, Sheriff Hall indicated that we have not reduced the population enough to safely isolate
incarcerated persons who test positive for COVID-19. It is also impossible to practice social
distancing or the other recommended CDC guidelines in the correctional setting. The Sheriff’s
testimony indicated another important fact, over 80% of people in Nashville’s jails are being held
pre-trial. This means that most of the individuals that are more susceptible to this disease just by
virtue of being incarcerated have not been convicted of the charges against them, are presumed
innocent, and are housed because they are unable to post bail in their cases.

The Nashville Defender’s Office remains steadfast in our commitment to client-centered
representation and innovative advocacy. The Courts’ ruling means that we will continue to engage
in discussions with the Davidson County District Attorney’s Office regarding the release of
individuals from custody. We sympathize with all of the family members who have called us about
their loved ones during this time. We are grateful to our community partners and medical
professionals who have written letters of support for this effort. We are proud to defend the
Constitution of the United States and to ensure that indigent, vulnerable,and marginalized people have a voice in the criminal legal system.