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The Way Forward

| August 3, 2017

The Tennessee Department of Corrections concluded its 2016 Annual Report with a frank, yet reflective vision of “the way forward.”  In so doing, it recognized that “offenders who experience carefully conceived transitions from incarceration to the community are more likely to succeed than offenders who are not transitioned” (Department of Corrections Report 2016).  Further, such a “seamless supervision model” must take into account “the timing of conditional release to maximize the potential for success is critical because research has proven that incarcerating offenders too long is as detrimental as not incarcerating them long enough” (Department of Corrections Report 2016).

The Department expressly acknowledged some shortfalls in achieving this “seamless supervision model,” highlighting the “diminishing parole grant trends and persistently high revocation rates” (Department of Corrections Report 2016).

First, the Department admits its concern over the fact that “parole hearings resulting in a parole grant decreased 7.6% between 2012 and 2015,” and that “only 28% of incarcerated felons are being granted parole in accordance with their release eligibility date” (The Department of Corrections 2016). However, the Department is optimistic that the reforms contained in the 2016 Public Safety Act will mitigate these concerns (Tenn. Code Ann. § 40-35-207). There is good cause for optimism. Under this new law, each inmate must undergo a risk and needs assessment prior to sentencing that must be taken into consideration throughout their process with the criminal justice system. The assessment includes an evaluation into possible substance abuse and mental health issues, as well as the likelihood they will reoffend. It is believed that these assessments will funnel more offenders into alternative sentencing programs or treatment programs while incarcerated.  However, additional reforms may be necessary to ensure that the Parole Board takes these assessments into consideration, and particularly, that more offenders who qualify and are eligible for parole are granted the same assessments.  Perhaps, additional accountability, such as an annual report to the Legislature accounting for each parole denial, and require a more in depth written disposition that sets forth their findings and conclusions may be necessary.

Also of concern is the fact that “40% of the yearly admissions to prison beds are the result of technical violator revocation” (TN Department of Corrections 2016). The Public Safety Act addresses this issue in part by urging alternative sanctions for supervision violations when appropriate based on the risk and needs assessment.  However, one factor that may continue to hinder an inmate’s successful transition into society is an apparent lack of resources allocated to supervision. The Department’s 2016 Statistical Abstract indicates that the total community supervision felon population totaled 78,825, with only a total of 875 staff dedicated to supervision (TN Department of Corrections Statistical Abstract 2016). The Department further reports that in FY 2015-2016, 43% of the 8,766 offenders who were released from supervision due to a violation were either technical violations or a failed drug test (TN Department of Corrections 2016). With additional resources dedicated to prison re-entry programs, such as substance abuse treatment and workforce development, coupled with an increase in the number of staff dedicated to supervision, they would likely experience an overall decrease in the number supervision violations, and ultimately decrease the total prison population.

The Tennessee Department of Corrections plays a vital, and ever increasing, role in ensuring public safety. As the Department advances “the way forward” to the goal of rehabilitation and integration of each offender back into society, it must be equipped with the necessary support.  Lawmakers must ensure that the Parole Board is practicing good faith in its review of eligible parole petitions, and that the Department has the resources necessary to supervise, rehabilitate, and support those who are released.

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JULIE WARREN is a graduate of Marshall University and of Regent University School of Law. She also attended Georgetown Law Center as a visiting student. While in law school, she clerked on the Senate Judiciary Committee. Julie served four years at the U.S. Department of Justice in Washington, D.C. After a few years in private practice as a civil defense litigator, Julie returned to public service and began her work in the Office of the West Virginia Attorney General where she primarily served as an appellate advocate for the State of West Virginia and as legislative counsel to the Attorney General.

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