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Yes, Tennessee is Ready for Justice Reform

| August 8, 2017

Increasingly, I approach the news with a certain amount of dread—especially the local news that seems to greet me every morning with a rundown of the violent crime that took place in Nashville overnight.  For most of us in Tennessee, dread becomes frustration when lawmakers continue to push a status quo agenda as the solution for Tennessee’s violent crime problem.

I imagine many in the Volunteer State, like myself, were exceedingly encouraged by a recent op-ed in the Tennessean by Rep. Jeremy Faison and Freedom Works’ Jason Pye titled Tennessee is Ready for Justice Reform. The piece addresses the notion that Tennessee’s higher than average violent crime and recidivism rates will never be fixed by a system that has contributed to the problem. As is obvious, too many lawmakers and government officials refuse to accept any culpability for the status quo.

Undaunted, the authors present their indictment of the current system of justice.  Their case for reform is based on the logic that, “There is not much rationale for continuing to do something that doesn’t work. And doubling down on failure is even less justifiable when it comes at a staggering cost to the taxpayers.” Amen. Please continue.

Rep. Faison and Mr. Pye go on to offer some pretty common sense solutions that have worked in states, such as Georgia. But first, lawmakers must be willing to subject the current “tough on crime” approach to an honest grading system. An objective review reveals a system that has failed to be fully effective.

Second, it necessitates using brains over brawn – meaning adopt a smart on crime approach that recognizes that prison is not always an effective sanction at increasing public safety. This is especially true for low-level, nonviolent offenders best suited to alternative sanctions, such as diversion or probation, which is also more cost effective.

Currently, the status quo has given Tennessee a felon inmate population that has steadily increased by ~12% from 26,998 in 2008 to 29,362 in 2016. Technical violations of probation or parole account for nearly 40% of yearly admissions and all at cost to the taxpayer of $68.75 per admission per day. Despite “locking them all up,” Tennessee still boasts a crime rate that is 20% higher than the national average, and a violent crime rate that is 39% higher. Simply put, Tennessee’s current $1 billion dollar per year justice system may be tough but it has failed to return results for public safety.

So, yes, Rep. Faison and Mr. Pye, Tennessee is ready for justice reform. But perhaps more accurate, Tennessee needs justice reform.

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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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