NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — We’re in the home stretch for the district attorney’s race, but only the challengers accepted our invitation to share why they believe Nashville needs change.
We reached out multiple times to incumbent Glenn Funk and the DA’s office for a week, but they chose not to take up the opportunity.
That left us with two newcomers who both said that Nashville deserves better than what they’ve seen from our criminal justice system.
P. Danielle Nellis is the only Nashville native in the race, but she and Sara Beth Myers share many similarities. They’re both married, have children and have years of law experience between them. They also share a commitment to building better connections between assistant district attorneys and the communities they serve.
We asked both candidates the same questions on the same day, but in different locations.
Why district attorney?
Nellis: "In 2013, my father-in-law, a Venezuelan immigrant, was murdered. His body was found in the passenger seat of his car off Nolensville Road. The investigation into that led to no results and so that case is unresolved. In 2014, my cousin was murdered in what appeared to be a series of LGBT-targeted homicides in North Nashville. They were not investigated as hate crimes and his case was unresolved. In 2017, my church family and I lost several of our kids, and at that point, I knew that Nashville deserved better and that we could do better. We have to address the crime issue. We also at the same time have to address the injustice and fairness issues in our system. We know that our criminal justice system has long had a disproportionate impact on certain communities and those communities are black and brown people."
Myers: "I am best suited for the position of district attorney because I have local, state, and federal prosecutorial experience. I am the only candidate who’s had civil rights prosecutorial experience and at this moment in time considering the disparities in our system and the rise in our crime rate, I am the best suited to handle this moment in time for our city. As we grow, we can either stay on the path we’re on now which is not working. There’s no safety net for people leaving incarceration because there’s no restorative justice unit and we’re not focusing on crime prevention. Throughout my career in both my public and private life, I focused on prevention measures. Trying to prevent people from ever going into the system. Currently, we’re only cherry-picking cases for the media. That’s not acceptable and that is a Band-Aid when we need surgery."
What does criminal justice reform look like for you?
Myers: "For me, criminal justice reform is all about public safety and equity. Crime prevention means dividing the office up and making sure that ADAs are assigned to neighborhoods so they can get to know the people who live and work in that area. That way, with the business community, the non-profit community, and the faith community, we can target those kids from going into the system in the first place. We have to stop asking the question, 'how much money do you have if you’re going to get out of jail?' We have to start asking the question, 'are you a danger to the community?' Then from a civil rights perspective, we have to do the first civil rights criminal justice audit of Davidson County. From arrest to sentencing, I want to see precisely where the disparities are in our system broken down by race, gender, nationality, sexual orientation, and religion. We’ve never done that study before and that means we can never make systemic change. I’m going to create the office's first restorative justice unit to do two things. To help people transition from incarceration back into the community with the resources they need to be successful. The second thing it will do for non-violent offenses is to ensure that those resources do not necessarily involve incarceration. That we’re creative in our solutions in making sure that people have those tailored resources. Still accountability and consequences, but not necessarily incarceration for those non-violent offenses."
Nellis: "It’s not about who you are. It’s not about what zip code you’re from. It’s not about how much more education you have, it’s not about your bank account. It shouldn’t be about that. You and everyone else here in the city deserve a system that is just and fair. Right now in Davidson County, 60% of the people in custody are black and brown people, where we make up 30% of the population. That tells me that our systemic issues, despite the efforts of those in power right now, have not been addressed. We’ve got to become transparent and invite the community in, but also get ADAs out of our criminal justice silos and into the communities we are called to serve. For me, that looks like a pre-trial assessment where people are arrested, identify the root causes, and then partner with community-based organizations. That’s why we have to invite the community in and engage the community. Restoration and restorative justice are asking the question, 'what is real accountability?' So, accountability is having that person take responsibility for those actions, getting to the root cause for those actions, and making sure those actions don’t happen again."
What, if anything, are we doing right with criminal justice reform in Nashville that you hope to build on?
Nellis: "We see in the juvenile justice system a restorative justice program. Now, it’s only had 65 people go through it right now, but with that model, I think we can expand it not only to the juvenile court, but Nashville is ripe to have a neighborhood courts model. What we would do is elevate the voices of moral authority here in the city. Community members who are interested go through a training program and for low-level, non-violent crimes, we are making sure the community is connected to the court. Not wag your finger at somebody…something that does allow for this sort of process to happen where the victim’s voice is heard. Some of the diversionary courts I think are good, but they’re too limiting. So if we’re looking at every case through the lens of restoration, we’re trying to address that root cause consistently. Hear the victim’s words and come consistently and come up with solutions to the problems consistently. We know right now: jail, probation or nothing simply doesn’t work."
Myers: "There have been progressive steps that have been taken by other agencies outside of the DA’s office, including the sheriff’s department, for behavioral care, including partners in care for the police department and then the juvenile court's restorative system. Violent felonies are being reduced to misdemeanors. People are making bail. They’re getting out and often they’re being federally prosecuted, which is costing taxpayers much more money and creating a much more dangerous climate here in Nashville. Conviction review is another thing that’s happening, but it’s just in its infancy in the office. It needs to be more independent. Involve lawyers in evaluating those cases and an internal procedure that’s consistent and written. So those are things that can be improved upon, but I do think need to continue."
Why should Nashville trust you?
Myers: "I think the question that all Nashvillians should be asking right now is, 'are we happy with the criminal justice system that we have? Do we feel safe and is our system equitable?' The answer to those has been a resounding no from every voter that I’ve spoken with. The number one issue of concern for Nashville as we grow is not even public education. It is the crime rate. People are concerned about their safety and that’s because as our city grows and our crime rate increases, we need a DA who is going to be able to respond to the moment and make sure we’re focusing on prevention, civil rights, and on restorative justice. I want people to be able to trust me as their prosecutor because I do have professional integrity. Anyone can look at my record of holding public officials accountable and protecting the vulnerable from the powerful. I’ve dedicated not only my career to that principle, but even to my after-work activities. I founded a non-profit. Advocates for Women’s and Kid’s Equality. We’ve looked to models all over the country of what works and statutes to fill gaps in laws that disproportionately affect women and kids. We’ve passed nine pieces of state legislation to improve the lives of women and kids here in Tennessee. We need someone who is going to do, not just cherry-pick cases for the media, not self-aggrandizement by taking a platform that jeopardizes people’s civil rights, but in fact, fighting for the vulnerable and protecting the vulnerable from the powerful. I have a track record of doing that as a local, state and federal prosecutor, and I will continue to do that and serve the people of Nashville, and I will do it with integrity, and I will not break the law."
Nellis: "In all these conversations about violent crime and victims, we often say, 'it’s bad,' and, 'I’m sorry that they have to suffer,' but walking with victims as someone who’s experienced it is different. I understand that my father-in-law who was murdered and was a Venezuelan soccer star is not standing on the sideline of my kid’s soccer game and that’s the moment that it hurts. It’s not just going through the court process. So helping victims get to a place of healing as they have to live with that loss, also has to be a part of our conversation. One that I don’t think anyone is talking about… I’m the only candidate with a feedback form on my website. I’m the only candidate that’s hosted round-tables to invite stakeholders in to say, 'how do we do this together?' You deserve to feel safe and I recognize that based on my lived experience, my professional experience, and I’ve demonstrated it in this campaign and this policy platform. That is why you should trust me, because you’ve seen it in practice. I hope that voters will do their research and see beyond the rhetoric. See beyond the numbers. I’ve tried to be honest and open and transparent throughout this."