On February 22, staff at a jail in Tennessee found 32-year-old Tommy Young unresponsive in his cell. He'd been held in the facility on assault charges since January, unable to pay his $100 bail. The Shelby County Sheriff's Office told a local Fox affiliate that the preliminary information indicated he died by suicide, but Young's family is skeptical.
“Would he have committed suicide then, when he’s only got 3 weeks until he comes home,” said Angela Stokes, Young's mother. She told reporters that her son was developmentally disabled, with the "mind of a 12-year-old" and that he shouldn't have been in the jail in the first place. The facility where Young was held, 201 Poplar, is notoriously overcrowded. Stokes said that her son, who was only 4'10", often got into fights defending himself because of his small stature. His case is yet another example of the deadly consequences of the cash bail system on low-level offenders, mentally ill individuals, and marginalized populations, particularly those who are poor.
Josh Spickler, the executive director of Memphis-based criminal justice reform group Just City, told Action News that the current cash bail system disproportionately punishes poverty stricken individuals, and that in Young’s case, “a $100 bond means 'You are of no risk to us.'" While a "low" bail may have been the intent, it still proved too high for Young, and many others in similar situations: non-violent offenders being held on charges for which they have not yet stood trial.
"[Shelby County Criminal Justice Center] is full of people who are poor, and so many of them are held there on $100 bonds," Spickler said. "Whatever caused this tragedy to occur, he shouldn't have been there in the first place.”
Studies show that even when bail is set low, the poorest Americans struggle to post bond, which can sometimes result in them languishing behind bars for months or years for mild, nonviolent offenses. In one prominent case, 16-year-old New Yorker Kalief Browder refused to plead guilty after he was accused of stealing a backpack in 2010. Unable to pay his $3,000 bond, he was held in jail on Riker’s Island for years while prosecutors decided what to do with his case. Although the charges where eventually dropped and Browder was released, he died by suicide in 2015 after reportedly suffering from mental health issues stemming from his time in prison, much of which was spent in solitary confinement.
Young’s death immediately garnered national attention for the issue of cash bail reform, including a tweet from Democratic presidential hopeful Elizabeth Warren, who said that his case was an example of why it's “long past time to end the punitive financial burden that is cash bail.”
The fight to end cash bail has played out on the national stage in the last few months, with New York most recently enacting a law that bars criminal courts from setting cash bail for most misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies. There is a stark contrast between the ways in which the rich are often allowed the leeway to sort out their cases outside of prison — i.e. Harvey Weinstein and Lori Loughlin — by posting bond. Meanwhile the poor, like grandmother of 10, Janice Dotson, are compelled to await trial behind bars. This inequality in justice is the impetus for reforms like New York’s Senate Bill S2101A, the "bail elimination act of 2019."
State Senator Alessandra Biaggi (D-Bronx/Westchester), a co-sponsor of the bill, told Refinery29 that Young's case is more evidence that cash bail is a fundamentally unequal system.
"We cannot criminalize poverty in this way – it is cruel, and is not the goal of our criminal justice system," Biaggi said. "With the elimination of cash bail, we can level the playing field to ensure wealthy and poor New Yorkers accused of non-violent crimes are treated the same way."
In Tennessee, Young's death has ignited a call for an audit of 201 Poplar. Shelby County Commissioner Tami Saywer told reporters, “We need to aggressively reduce our jail population. Overcrowding leads to stress of not just the inmates but stress on actual correction officers." Cash bail reform, like the one passed in New York, aims to reduce overcrowding by keeping non-violent offenders out of jails until they have had a trial.