Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, January 3, 2020

Legislators seek to balance punishment, preparing non-violent offenders for success

It’s all about balance in criminal justice reform, and this year lawmakers are likely to be searching for that sweet spot between punishment and preparation for reentry into society for Tennessee’s more than 21,000 inmates.

Fewer than 2,300 were serving sentences of either life imprisonment or life without parole as of May, data from the Tennessee Department of Corrections show. That means the vast majority of offenders will return to the community after serving time.

Hamilton County Rep. Robin Smith sees sentencing reform as a priority issue. Reforms in sentencing need to “strike the balance that returns non-violent offenders into our communities better prepared to succeed and work” while protecting public safety, the first-term Republican explains.

Knoxville’s Sen. Richard Briggs talked about a recent visit to the Morgan County Correctional Complex in Wartburg. The experience was “eye-opening,” he says, and he saw similarities between the complex and a technical school or community college.

Someone incarcerated there can learn to become a licensed electrical worker, a carpenter or an electrician, he adds. A critical part of criminal justice reform is to make sure that offenders have the skills to become employed when they are released, making recidivism less likely.

“My concern is with the mental health aspect,” says Rep. David Hawk, R-Greeneville. He calls for efforts to treat people with mental health and substance abuse problems, who can end up in jail rather than in treatment.

“For too long jails have (served a mental health function),” he says. “We can’t continue to try to incarcerate our way out of this.”

Gov. Bill Lee signaled his interest in criminal justice reform early in his administration, listing it as one of four priority areas in his first State of the State address in March.

The first-term Republican called for a system “that is tough, smart and above all just.” The state, he says, is locking up people for longer than it ever had, at great cost to offenders’ families and to taxpayer dollars, with the result of rising crime and high recidivism.

Lee proposed using community supervision for low-risk offenders, increasing funding to the Electronic Monitoring Indigency Fund so low-risk nonviolent offenders could be monitored with GPS rather than be incarcerated, and expanding prison education and reentry programs so offenders are more likely to become gainfully employed upon release.

He also created the Criminal Justice Investment Task Force (CJITF) to study criminal justice issues, and the group released an interim report last month that is likely to spur legislative action.

It’s one of the governor’s highest priorities, Briggs notes, and criminal justice reform might be an area in which lawmakers from both parties can reach agreement.

The interim report, released last month, reflects recommendations in four areas:

• Sentencing and the criminal code

• Parole and probation

• Mental health and substance abuse

• Education, workforce development and reentry.

The task force also is examining juvenile justice, violent crime and drivers of crime.

The report expands on themes that Lee spoke about in March.

It states flatly that during the past 10 years Tennessee has incarcerated people at a rate that’s 10% higher than the national average, “and its communities are no safer for it.”

The state also spends more than $1 billion each year on corrections, the report says, but has the fourth-highest violent crime rate in the nation and a high recidivism rate, with nearly half of those who have served prison sentences rearrested within three years of release.

Additional conclusions from the task force include the following:

Tennessee’s prison population grew 12% during the past decade, driven by a growth in time served due to increasing sentence lengths and decreasing parole releases.

Tennessee’s recidivism rate remains high despite a growing prison population and increasing corrections budget.

While admissions decreased over the past decade, Tennessee still sentences a large number of individuals convicted of non-violent offenses to the state’s prisons and jails.

Tennessee’s female incarceration rate ranks 11th highest in the nation, with female felony admissions increasing 12% during the past decade.

There have been fewer revocations of community supervision in recent years, but more revocations have taken place because of non-criminal conduct, such as failing a drug test.

Local county jails housed more than 8,500 individuals sentenced for felony offenses at the end of FY2018. At least half of these jail facilities are overcrowded.

So far, no new bills specifically addressing criminal justice reform have been filed. One of the interim report’s recommendations calls for an overhaul of the state’s sentencing code, with a target date of 2021.

The report’s 23 recommendations for change center on these overall goals include:

• Better addressing prisoners with behavioral health needs, including those prisoners serving time in local jails

• Ensuring equal opportunity to state prisoners housed in local jails

• Focusing state resources on violent and high-risk individuals

• Improving the efficiency and effectiveness of community supervision

• Minimize barriers to successful reentry into society after release from prison

• Ensuring the sustainability of criminal justice reforms through better oversight of implementing reforms and through evaluating results of reforms.