Guest column: The DA’s authority over abortion laws and other issues define the race

By , Guest Columnist Updated: July 29, 2022 4:00 AM CT | Published: July 29, 2022 4:00 AM CT
Guest Columnist

Lindsay Kee

Lindsay Kee is the interim executive director for the ACLU of Tennessee.

The most important race on the Shelby County ballot on Thursday, Aug. 4 is arguably the district attorney race.

District attorneys are the most powerful people in the criminal justice system. They decide who gets charged, which sentences to pursue — including the death penalty — and how to handle prosecutions of children. They influence whether people are held in jail because they cannot afford bail. They have the power to control plea deals, to decide who gets access to mental health and drug treatment diversion programs, and to choose whether or not to charge police officers with crimes when someone is injured or killed by police.

District attorneys also decide which crimes to prioritize for prosecution. In the wake of the Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade, Tennessee’s ban on abortion once fetal cardiac activity is detected — which occurs at approximately six weeks into pregnancy and before many even know they are pregnant — has gone into effect. Next, on August 25, Tennessee’s trigger law goes into effect. The trigger law bans abortion at fertilization, making abortion a Class C felony, which carries a maximum penalty of fifteen years in prison.


Q&A with DA incumbent Amy Weirich


These new laws make the district attorney elections taking place on Aug. 4 even more critical: Tennessee’s district attorneys will decide whether or not to prioritize prosecution of people who assist those seeking an abortion.

District attorneys’ decisions also contribute to racial disparities in our jails and prisons. In 2021, Black people made up 55% of Shelby County’s population, but 81% of the jail population. In 2017, Black people made up 18% of Tennessee’s overall population, but 42% of the state’s prison population. And in 2019, more juveniles were transferred to adult court in Shelby County than in any other jurisdiction in the state — and 99% of them were Black.

These issues matter to voters. In a recent ACLU-sponsored poll, 80 percent of voters polled said it was important that the district attorney use cash bail only as a last resort, as required by state law, because the system disproportionately harms low-income people.

Seventy-nine percent said it was important for the district attorney to hold police officers accountable by ensuring independent investigations in all cases where police kill or seriously injure residents, and to make these findings available to the public.


Q&A with DA candidate Steve Mulroy


Seventy-five percent said it was important for the district attorney to stop charging children under 18 in adult court.

And 71 percent said it was important that the district attorney not prosecute those who seek an abortion or the doctors who perform them.

ACLU-TN does not endorse or oppose candidate district attorneys, but we do believe it’s important for voters to understand where candidate district attorneys stand on issues that are important to them. That’s why we and our partners in the Justice ’22 Campaign have been educating voters about the 2022 elections’ crucial impact on our criminal justice system and our community.

ACLU-TN sent a questionnaire to the district attorney candidate district attorneys asking their positions on a range of issues, from their commitment to making the district attorney’s office more open and transparent, to their support for diversion courts and programs, to their commitment to deprioritizing abortion and crimes often associated with poverty.

Candidate district attorney Steve Mulroy’s responses can be found on our website. While incumbent district attorney Amy Weirich did not respond to the questionnaire, based on publicly available sources, we have compiled information on both candidate district attorney’s positions on a range of issues on our website.


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Early voting is now underway and election day is Thursday, Aug. 4. District attorneys have the power to effect meaningful change in our criminal justice system and our community. For that reason, we and our Justice ’22 Campaign partners have been working hard to make sure voters have the information they need to choose a district attorney who will make Shelby County a more just, fair, safe, and equitable place for all of us.

More information on the Shelby County district attorney race can be found at www.aclu-tn.org/shelby-county-district-attorney/. More information on the Justice ’22 Campaign can be found at justiceandsafetyalliance.org/justice-22.

Topics

Guest Columns Shelby County District Attorney Amy Weirich Steve Mulroy

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