Jan 29, 2024 - News

Constitutional amendment would target bail in criminal cases

Illustration of the "No" symbol merged with jail cell bars.

Illustration: Lindsey Bailey/Axios

House Speaker Cameron Sexton is part of a bipartisan coalition that wants to change Tennessee's constitution to allow judges to deny bail for a broader array of criminal defendants.

Why it matters: The amendment would represent a significant change to Tennessee's criminal code. The state currently allows judges to deny bail in first-degree murder cases that are eligible for the death penalty.

  • Expanding that could affect other defendants' ability to get out of jail while awaiting trial.

Driving the news: Sexton framed the effort as an attempt to fight violent crime. Republican lawmakers have focused for years on hardening criminal law through tougher sentences and other measures.

  • The House speaker announced the constitutional amendment push last week alongside Democrats including the Memphis mayor and district attorney.

Between the lines: Sexton said the details of the proposal are still being discussed and will be filed soon. He said it would apply to violent charges such as second-degree murder or aggravated kidnapping.

  • He also emphasized that the amendment would give judges discretion to deny bail rather than setting requirements.

State of play: Changing the state constitution is a long and complicated process that would take years. It requires multiple rounds of signoffs from lawmakers in addition to a statewide vote.

  • The Tennessee Journal reported the earliest the amendment would be on the ballot is November 2026.
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