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Tennesseans Agree with Governor Lee’s Call for Criminal Justice Reform

| April 8, 2019

Earlier this month, Governor Bill Lee used the State of the State addressto announce details of his criminal justice reform agenda. Underlying this agenda is the intent to make Tennessee a leader in criminal justice reform. His elevation of criminal justice reform as a priority of his administration came as no surprise to Tennesseans, as Governor Lee made it a pillar of his campaign platform.

Here is why this is an issue: Tennessee’s incarceration rate is higher than the national average. What is more, over 50 percent of the state’s inmates are incarcerated on a nonviolent offense, resulting in a burgeoning prison population that has driven correction costs past the $ 1 billion mark. Public safety has not benefitted from the increased cost. In fact, Tennessee’s violent crime rate is significantly higher than the national average, and is the highest of all its neighbors.  Close to 50 percent will return to prison within three years of release. That is why those who advocate for the “tough on crime” status quo, and drop the “soft on crime” label to challenge reform, do so at great expense to both the taxpayer and public safety.  As Governor Lee explained, “when it comes to reforming our state’s justice system, the cost of doing nothing isn’t zero.” Leaders in the General Assembly have echoedthis sentiment, effectively prioritizing outcomes over labels. 

As it turns out, Tennessee voters agree. A recent statewide pollof 500 registered Tennessee voters sponsored by Right on Crime, Justice Action Network, and the ACLU of Tennessee, found that 69 percentof voters believe the criminal justice system in Tennessee “needs significant improvements,” and only 26 percentbelieve it “is working pretty well as it is.” In his State of the State, Governor Lee explained, “the punishment for violent crime must be swift and severe, but we must also get better at helping those who will be released prepare to re-enter society, not re-enter prison.” To his point, 91 percentof Tennesseans believe that “the main goal of Tennessee’s criminal justice system should be rehabilitating people to become productive, law-abiding citizens.” 

Governor Lee also plans to focus on community supervision for low-risk offenders “to provide the corrections oversight necessary to hold someone accountable for their crime without incurring the economic and social cost of incarceration.” To this end, he plans to “add funds to the Electronic Monitoring Indigency Fund and add the use of GPS monitoring so that low-risk, non-violent individuals can keep their jobs and provide for their families instead of spending unnecessary time in jail.” This proposal is supported by 83 percentof voters who believe that “some of the money we are spending on locking up nonviolent offenders, especially drug offenders, should be shifted to alternatives like treatment programs, electronic monitoring, community service, and probation.”  

We must also ensure that the 95 percent of inmates who will re-enter our Tennessee communities are positioned to be successful members of society. Thus, Governor Lee has proposed anexpansion of education and re-entry counselling opportunities in Tennessee prisons. He also introduced a bill that will eliminate expungement fees “for those already eligible under the law to alleviate the cost burden of getting back on their feet.” This is a popular with Tennessee voters. In fact, 92 percent agree “weshould break down barriers for people coming out of prison so it’s easier for them to get jobs, support their families, and stop being so dependent on government services,” while 84 percentwant to “allow people with low-level criminal records, who have remained crime-free for a period of time, to seal or expunge their records so they have a better shot of finding jobs and supporting their families.”

The state’s jails are also overcrowded because 49 percent of this population are pretrial detainees who could not afford to pay bail, and so, are detained until trial. What is more, 17 percent of the pretrial population are detained on misdemeanor charges, costing local tax payers over $206,000 per day.Reform leaders in the General Assembly, Senator John Stevens and House Judiciary Chairman Michael Curcio, have sponsored a billto address reduce the number of low risk individuals subject to pretrial detention, and Tennessee voters agree: 94 percentbelieve a “person’s risk to public safety” is most important to consider when deciding to release a defendant before their trial rather than a “person’s ability to pay cash for bail,” and 79 percentsupport “eliminating or significantly reducing the use of cash bail altogether for low-level, non-violent offenders and shifting to a system where judges focus more on whether the person is considered a threat to public safety or a flight risk.”The overwhelming consensus that surrounds criminal justice reform in Tennessee, and the nation for that matter, is a call to action. Lawmakers, stakeholders, and every citizen across the Volunteer State have a tremendous opportunity to cross the ideological and partisan divides to make Tennessee theleader in criminal justice reform. Sorry, Texas.

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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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