Nashville’s District Attorney candidates agreed to submit written responses to a series of policy questions posed by The Tennessean.
The three attorneys are vying for an eight-year term as the top Davidson County prosecutor.
Incumbent Glenn Funk has held the seat since 2014. He attended Wake Forrest University and earned a law degree from the University of Mississippi. He began his legal career as a public defender in Memphis until he moved to Nashville in 1986 to work as an assistant district attorney. After more than three years, he went into private practice and spent 25 years as a criminal defense lawyer.
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He lives in Nashville with his wife Lori, with whom he has three children: Mary Landon, Rob and Sam.
Former local, state and federal prosecutor Sara Beth Myers announced her candidacy in December. The first in her family to graduate college, Myers attended Duke University and Vanderbilt University Law School. Her work at Thistle Farms led to the creation of her own nonprofit, AWAKE, to help children and survivors break cycles of violence and poverty.
She lives in East Nashville with her husband, two kids and “a variety of pets.”
Former prosecutor P. Danielle Nellis has family ties to Nashville stretching back generations. Nellis announced her candidacy in October. She currently works as counsel for Klein Solomon Mills, PLLC., largely focusing on labor and employment issues. She attended Spellman College and Boston University School of Law. She has also worked as a criminal defense attorney and law clerk and adjunct law professor.
She lives in Nashville with her husband, J. Eric Insignares, and young son.
Responses are listed by candidate alphabetically. Some have been edited for length.
What are the top three priorities you hope to accomplish in your time in office, should you be elected?
Funk: My top priority will remain prosecuting violent crime. Our office has won the big cases like the Vanderbilt Rape and Waffle House Mass Shooting cases. We have a 95 percent conviction rate on all violent crimes such as murder, rape, and armed robbery. Domestic violence will also continue to be a top priority. We have a team of 22 professionals working relentlessly to support victims with a program that has been hailed as “profound” by members of the American Prosecutors Association. My second priority will be to continue to reform the criminal justice system in a way that ends mass incarceration by exploring alternatives to jail for non-violent offenses when we can instead help our neighbors who suffer from mental health, addiction and poverty. We have cut the jail population in half over the past eight years and I believe we can do even more to end mass incarceration at the local level for non-violent offenders. Thirdly, a top priority of mine will be to expand the Restorative Justice program that we have been operating now for four years in our Juvenile Court. This program, the first in Tennessee, has shown remarkable results and I want to work with our General Sessions Courts to bring a similar program to the adult system.
Myers: 1. Crime Prevention: To address rising crime, I will assign Assistant District Attorneys to precincts to build relationships with community stakeholders. We will target resources at neighborhood-specific issues to implement solutions that prevent people from going to jail.
2. Civil Rights: I will conduct the first civil rights criminal justice audit of Davidson County to identify precise disparities (from arrest through sentencing) and make systemic reforms. Violence prevention training will be required for police.
3. Restorative Justice: I will create a Restorative Justice Unit to prevent repeat crime and to tailor non-incarceration-based resolutions (addiction treatment, etc.) that target root causes.
Nellis: 1) Identifying and inviting stakeholders to the table to align and expand our resources. When people commit crimes, they should be held accountable for the harm they caused. However, our current system generally only looks at the punishment that can be levied (jail or probation). We have to expand the options for accountability so that they include taking responsibility for the actions, working to repair the harm done, and implementing processes to heal the harm caused to victims and the community. These partnerships will also allow for the expansion of community based supervision pre-trial, thus meeting defendant needs, reducing the number of victims overall, and reducing our reliance on cash bail. 2) Analyzing the available data to understand and identify disparities within the criminal justice system. We have massive amounts of data about who gets arrested, where they are arrested, and the charges for which individuals are arrested. However, that data is not analyzed by judge or Assistant DA handling the case to determine where biases may exist. Further, the data must be analyzed to understand the biases victims face as they engage with the system. 3) Partnering with the Courts to establish a set of clear priorities including the expansion of pre-trial release programs, a more effective scheduling model including dockets outside of traditional hours and transitioning from the “cattle call” docket model, expanding the options for restoration and rehabilitation – particularly for individuals who are 18-25 years old, and automating the expungement process.
What efforts do you support to change the over incarceration of Black Nashvillians in Davidson County?
Funk: As District Attorney I have been intentional about ending incarceration for non-violent offenses where we can help someone suffering from addiction, mental health and poverty when jail is not the answer. I have cut the local jail population in half. I have eliminated jail time for driving offenses which cuts our jail population by 18,000 inmate days per year. I also ended prosecution for less than a half an ounce of marijuana because prosecuting for simple possession of marijuana does little for public health or public safety and statistics show there to be a huge racial disparity in who is arrested and charged for these offenses. This also saves Nashville over 5,000 inmate days per year.
Myers: Black Nashvillians are overrepresented both as defendants and as victims. Not prosecuting marijuana cases or driver’s license violations is merely a first step to addressing this much larger issue. I will conduct the first civil rights criminal justice audit of Davidson County (including the past ten years from arrest to sentencing) to determine exactly where the disparities are in our system (based on race, gender, nationality, sexual orientation, and religion). Before we can make critical systems changes, we need to know the exact source of the disparities in our system. This information combined with crime prevention measures will reduce these disparities.
Nellis: Approximately 60% of the people in custody in Davidson County are Black and Brown people. This is one of the primary indicators of a system that continues to fail our entire community. I believe an effective pretrial assessment and pretrial release program in partnership with community based organizations that can provide resources based on the assessment is the best way to address the overrepresentation of Black and Brown people in our jail system. In addition, we are going to have to have the hard conversations about both the systemic issues of policing balanced with the need for a highly skilled force to to investigate crime and preserve evidence. There are neighborhoods who want more police officers and some who want none at all – both with valid arguments to support their positions. Finally, we have to take a hard look at sentencing practices within the office and put in place practical solutions to address overcharging and over-penalizing individuals. .
What efforts do you support to change disproportionately negative outcomes for people of color in Nashville?
Funk: I am in support of the work being done by the Equity Alliance, NOAH, and Gideon’s Army to promote increased opportunities for people of color to have an equal seat in preschools, classrooms, hiring classes, housing, economic prosperity, the boardroom and voting booth. Our city is stronger and smarter when we are more inclusive. That is why I have worked to lower our incarceration rate and minimize the collateral consequences of arrest and conviction through diversion and expungement programs.
Myers: Reliance on cash bail disproportionately affects people of color, which is why true bail reform is a critical step from both a public safety and equity perspective. People should not plead guilty because they cannot afford bail nor should violent offenders be released merely because they can pay. Equitable treatment begins with both an understanding of the sources of the disparity followed by an effort to directly address the source of disparity through systems change. Restorative justice is also a critical element, because it addresses root causes rather than simply indiscriminately incarcerating people of color.
Nellis: Most criminal behavior is trauma response and we know crime is a resource problem. We also know that healthy communities are safe communities. A healthy community is one in which children receive a great education, adults are employed and receive wages that allow them to afford food and housing, and community members feel valued, heard and seen. Unfortunately we know that the impact is felt greatly in minority and marginalized communities across Nashville. by working with the Metro Nashville Police Department, the Department of Criminal Justice Planning, the Criminal Court Clerk and other entities, we can identify where crime is occurring, the root causes that are triggering criminal behavior, and how the cases are or are not being processed through the courts. It is imperative that the District Attorney work with the Criminal Court Clerk and his staff to keep clear records of which Assistant District Attorneys are handling which cases and if there are any biases in the outcomes. Further, a full audit will illuminate any issues that cause gaps in communication, unnecessary delay in processing, and other issues that produce potentially unjust outcomes. We cannot address the outcomes until we understand the inputs.
How do you approach enforcing state laws you fundamentally view as wrong?
Funk: What guides my decision to lawfully exercise my prosecutorial discretion as District Attorney is not whether I see a law as “wrong” or “right,” but whether the resources of my office are being used in a manner consistent with the oath I took as a public servant to promote public safety in Nashville. There have been times recently when the legislature has attempted to use the criminal justice system as a means to enforce partisan and mean-spirited policies that do absolutely nothing to promote public safety. That is why I said I would not prosecute the transgender bathroom sign law or the executive order to criminalize teachers over mask mandates. That’s also why I’ve ended the prosecution for simple possession of marijuana.
Myers: I will not prosecute anyone for a violation of state laws that are unconstitutional. The current DA’s pronouncements regarding what laws he won’t prosecute are simply meant to grab headlines, and are the wrong approach. Because of his actions, the legislature took away his discretion not to prosecute certain cases, making it more likely that low level marijuana, women, trans people, and mask wearers will be prosecuted. As someone who has gotten nine state laws passed, I plan to protect people by being strategic and effective. I will simply not prosecute such cases (without holding a press conference).
Nellis: Prosecuting in Nashville requires a recognition that a growing population, increased population density, tourism, business development, and changing neighborhood identity among other factors, increases the opportunity for human and drug trafficking, displacement and homelessness, and hopelessness among certain subsets of the population. However, the District Attorney cannot make broad sweeping statements that draw the ire of the legislature or create a situation where bad actors have a license to continue their behavior.
In your opinion, what should the relationship between prosecutors and police be?
Funk: The police and prosecutors should work together to promote public safety and improve public trust in both policing and prosecution. I am proud of the work my office is now doing directly with Chief Drake and Metro Police to assist with solving criminal homicides and decreasing the rate of murders in our city. When Chief Drake decentralized the homicide unit, I assigned a team of district attorneys to work with that unit and convinced the Nashville Judges to change the court assignment process so that the trial prosecutor can work on the case even before an arrest is made. Over the last 18 months, the MNPD homicide solve rate has risen from 37 percent to 75 percent and Nashville is the only major American city to see its homicide rate drop in 2021 as compared to 2020. I am also proud of the collaborative efforts both Chief Drake and I have had with Juvenile Court Judge Sheila Calloway to promote gun safety and the need for people to lock up their firearms. Working in furtherance of both public safety and public trust also means that the District Attorney’s Office will prosecute police officers who break the law. I have publicly stated I will not ask for nor accept the endorsement of any police unions because the district attorney’s office must make prosecutorial decisions regarding police conduct that the public will trust. To further police accountability, I have also worked with three mayors to acquire body cameras for all of our officers, which we now have today. Also, I implemented a policy requiring all officer involved shootings to be investigated by the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation so that no law enforcement agency in Nashville investigates itself.
Myers: Prosecutors should have a collaborative relationship with all community stakeholders, including the city council, mayor’s office, businesses, nonprofits, and law enforcement. Law enforcement officers are both investigators and critical witnesses in almost every case that comes to the DA’s Office. Sometimes, however, law enforcement officers and DAs commit crimes too. As a federal civil rights prosecutor, I prosecuted several law enforcement officers for committing civil rights offenses. I have also trained law enforcement with DOJ on violence prevention and hate crime identification. These trainings prevent issues and will be mandatory under my administration.
Nellis: The Office of the District Attorney Nashville is the representative of the State of Tennessee in Davidson County. It should represent the people of Davidson County and align itself with the communities it is called to serve. Police Officers are a necessary party of the criminal justice system and we need a highly skilled group of individuals to investigate crimes, collect evidence, and respond to calls. However, if the actions of an officer misalign with the needs of the community through the use of excessive force or biased investigation, then the officer should be held accountable. The people of Davidson County must be able to trust that the Office of the District Attorney will work with officers but also hold them accountable where their choices cause harm to the community.
The current iteration of the DA’s Conviction Review Unit has been celebrated as a robust approach to reassessing past cases. What is your plan for continuing, reinventing or overhauling that unit?
Funk: The Nashville Conviction Review Unit has become one of the most respected and effective in the country, representing the reform-minded approach I have taken in leading my office. Per Capita, in 2021, Nashville led the nation in exonerations of innocent people. My primary goal for the future of the CRU is expansion, in both resources and focus. The next phase for the CRU will include sentencing review. As we have done from the beginning, we will continue to collaborate with, learn from, and adopt best practices from other CRU’s across the country.
Myers: Conviction review is a critical function, but it could be much stronger and more transparent. The most important component of conviction review is transparency, which involves working directly with the Tennessee Innocence Project as an independent partner. I would strengthen and expand the unit but, critically, in order to avoid conflicts within the Office, clear procedures for case review initiation (which do not currently exist) must be created so that even ADAs who handled recent cases can have their cases reviewed–not just older cases. Conviction review also must have independent oversight to ensure transparency, which it currently does not.
Nellis: I plan to continue the unit as is. I had the privilege of working on a recent case and commend both the CRU Team and the Tennessee Innocence Project on their great work. I do believe the legal remedies of the CRU are limited and there will likely need to be legislative action in the future to potentially address an even greater number of wrongful convictions. More importantly, we must implement a clear training protocol and accountability process so that years down the road, we are not reviewing cases that should have been handled correctly in the first place.
What efforts do to you support on changes to sentencing law?
Funk: The goal of our sentencing system, as expressed in the Tennessee Code, are rehabilitation, deterrence and -when necessary- incapacitation through extended incarceration. The statewide District Attorney’s conference meets annually to prepare legislative proposals designed to promote public safety. Consistent with my focus on supporting vulnerable victims, my office drafted the recent updates to elder abuse. I have also joined with the conference to address gaps in protection of children and sexual assault victims. However, the answer to public safety cannot be found by simply enacting longer prison terms and mandatory minimums. I oppose the abolition of the parole system and the elimination of behavioral credits. These programs fulfill the goals of rehabilitation and deterrence so that individuals are not incarcerated longer than necessary and are better prepared to lead lawful and productive lives when they are released. By contrast, I support additional victim services and efforts to increase the victims compensation fund. Additionally, I support more diversionary options on non violent offenses for mental health treatment and addiction recovery programs. I also believe the legislature should expand the ability to expunge older convictions, automatically expunge arrest records for dismissed cases and immediately restore voting rights once a person completes their sentence.
Myers: Mandatory minimum sentences drive mass incarceration and are detrimental to defendants, prosecutors, judges, and the community alike. They also don’t serve as deterrents. Instead, both sentences and/or restorative justice solutions (including addiction, mental health, and trauma treatment) should be carefully tailored to each person so as to address the source of the behavior and keep the community safe. Further, when defendants are incarcerated for violent offenses, they need more programs that will help them transition back into the community so that they are successful.
Nellis: I support a thorough and inclusive discussion regarding our current sentencing laws at the legislative level. In addition to supporting changes at the legislative level, I will pursue best practices which include the rigorous and early screening of cases to determine if the evidence supports all elements of the offense so that cases for which there is no supporting evidence can be dismissed; indicting cases appropriately without overcharging or adding charges unnecessarily; seeking to minimize the use or pursuit of juvenile transfers and working to identify the root causes of criminal behavior for juvenile offenders so that effective rehabilitation occurs; limiting the use of sentencing enhancements and requiring supervisor approval to seek enhancements; and not conditioning plea offers on the waiver of a defendant’s right to seek pretrial release, preliminary hearings, discovery or to litigate constitutional violations. By making practical changes permitted within the laws as they are written, I believe we can reduce the negative and disparate impact of our current sentencing structure.
What efforts to do you support to change how bail works?
Funk: Bail serves the dual purposes of ensuring a person’s return to court and protecting public safety. I have been working on bail reform since taking office in 2014 because excessive bail too often punishes people by causing needless pretrial incarceration. I worked with the Sheriff, Public Defender, and Judges to eliminate cash bail on all misdemeanors and low level nonviolent felonies. The only exceptions are A, B, or C felonies, domestic violence, DUI 3rd offense or higher, or for any individual who has been arrested twice or more in a 7 day period or three times in three months. The total daily average number of pretrial detainees who have been in jail longer than 48 hours on a misdemeanor is now just three per night. Even those individuals have bail hearings within two days and can have a trial within 5-14 days. Nashville is different and better than other jurisdictions because we understand that no one should be incarcerated pretrial for minor offenses unless there is a real public safety issue. As to serious felonies, because the Tennessee Constitution establishes that all non-capital offenses are bailable, eliminating cash bail would mean that violent offenders would be released and could continue to commit these offenses. For that reason, I believe that bail should continue as an option for a judge to consider, but only in cases impacting public safety. I am also opposed to eliminating Tennessee’s right to bail. I note that in the Federal system there is no Constitutional right to bail and over 95% of defendants are incarcerated pretrial. In Nashville, less than 3% of all persons charged with a crime are incarcerated pretrial.
Myers: We need bail reform now because with the current system, being released from jail prior to trial depends largely on a defendant’s wealth. I practiced in the federal system where there is no cash bail. Instead, the focus is on whether a person is a danger to the community or flight risk. If the person is neither, then the person is not held in jail pretrial. The state could put in place third-party custodians and/or institute GPS monitoring for people charged with non-violent offenses to keep our community safe and prevent mass incarceration.
Nellis: As stated in my policy platform which can be found at www.NellisforNashville.com/issues, expanding pretrial services in conjunction with community-based supervision by an authorized organization is the best way to alleviate reliance on a cash bail system while reducing harm to the community impacted by an individual alleged to have committed a criminal offense. Authorized supervising organizations would have access to an effective screening tool, and work with the individual to address any underlying needs or trauma that may have caused that person to come in contact with the criminal justice system. The pretrial services would have to both triage and assist with either long-term planning for cases that are quickly disposed of, or establish a plan for support where cases are likely to take longer to proceed through the system. Implementing an effective pretrial screening and supervision program will decrease the number of victims and defendants overall as individuals stop cycling through the system, which is a major issue under the current administration.
What commitments do you have to diversity in your office?
Funk: When I began as District Attorney there was one African American Assistant District Attorney. Today there are 12 African Americans, four Latinx, and four LGBTQ Assistant District Attorneys. Our office is now stronger, smarter and better represents the public we serve. These men and women I have recruited and trained have risen to leadership both inside and outside my office. They represent 50 percent of my leadership team. In addition, many of my ADA’s have left the office to advance their careers in ways that make me proud: Derry Harper (left to become the Inspector General for the City of New Orleans); Sasha Batey (now works with the American Prosecutors Association in Washington, D.C.); Ardie Griffin (became counsel for the Pennsylvania State Senate); Marcus Floyd (now running for General Sessions Judge); Ana Escobar (now General Sessions Judge). I will continue to be intentional about ensuring that my office represents and looks like all of Nashville.
Myers: The composition of the DA’s Office should not only reflect the diversity of the community that it serves (race, religion, nationality, gender, and sexual orientation), but it should also build relationships with diverse communities outside the office. A diverse staff is only the beginning of deeper changes that should be made, which include building trust and collaborating with diverse communities and organizations in our city with a common goal of preventing crime and saving lives. The results of the civil rights criminal justice audit will help determine the trainings and systems changes that are needed to ensure equity for everyone.
Nellis: I have a deep and proven commitment to diversity not only in the Office, but also in the legal community. As a prosecutor, I recruited, trained and administered the most diverse intern classes the Office had ever seen which has led to the most diverse hiring the Office has ever seen. I was also, along with my colleagues, responsible for recruiting diverse attorneys to join the Office. I have twice received the Nashville Bar Association President’s Award for my work as Chair of the NBA Diversity Committee and Diversity Summit Committee. As Chair of the Summit Committee, I partnered with organizations across Tennessee to move the conversation from simply what diversity is to how we can be more equitable and inclusive in our efforts as legal practitioners. However, there is still much work to do to make the Office reflective of the Nashville community. It is not solely about the number of diverse people hired, but the expectation that each and every person in the Office feels valued and supported in their work. We must also ensure cultural competence and cultural humility when engaging with our neighbors across Nashville in a way that respects and values the diversity each of us brings to the table. I especially hope to focus on engaging the immigrant population and those who are members of religious minorities to expand the options for accountability that are culturally sensitive, and to tap into our vast community based language resources to bridge communication gaps. Valuing diversity is at the core of valuing stakeholders and uplifting the voices of moral authority within our community, so that we can build a safer and stronger Nashville, together!
What is your greatest strength?
Funk: My greatest strength is my ability to collaborate with other government stakeholders to create innovative programs that improve our justice system.
Myers: Problem solving through collaboration.
Nellis: My greatest strength in this race is a deep and unshakeable belief that we as a city can reimagine a criminal justice system that meets the needs of victims, defendants and the community as a whole.
What is your greatest weakness?
Funk: M&M’s chocolates
Myers: Failing to recognize when my words won’t change someone’s mind.
Nellis: Focusing on messaging early in the campaign instead of telling my story.
When you’re not working, what are your top three things to do in Nashville?
Funk: Two of our children have moved out of our home so Lori and I love spending time visiting our son Sam and spending time with our daughter Mary Landon. I also enjoy teaching at Vanderbilt and the Nashville School of Law, attending Bible study at my home church, Westminster Presbyterian, and taking my son Rob to McDonalds to get chocolate milkshakes.
Myers: I love hiking and playing sports with my kids in our local parks, going to hear local artists, and eating at every possible local restaurant and food truck with my family.
Nellis: Hiking on the primitive trails, reading books and hanging out with my family
It’s Music City, what are the top three songs on your daily playlist?
Funk: Guitar Town by Steve Earle Up the Ladder to the Roof by the Supremes, and He’s Blessin’ Me by Enoch Fuzz and J.J. Greene
Myers: Hold Out Your Hand by Brandi Carlile Enter Sandman by Metallica Raining Tacos by Parry Gripp (for the kids–and me)
Nellis: Be Healed by Eddie James, the Jazz station on Apple Music, NKOTB (I’m an 80’s baby)
What book are you currently reading?
Funk: “40 Acres and a Goat” by Will Campbell
Myers: “Until We Reckon: Violence, Mass Incarceration, and a Road to Repair” by Danielle Sered
Nellis: “Changing Lenses” by Howard Zehr