In FY 2016-2017, the Tennessee Legislature appropriated $975,506,000to the Tennessee Department of Corrections (TDOC). The TDOC reports that the felon inmate population has steadily increased nearly 12 percent from 26,998 in 2008 to 30,161 in 2017. Specifically, the male inmate population has increased 8.4 percent, with the female population increasing 58 percent during this same period. Further, the TDOC projects the total inmate population to increase to 30,215 by 2020, at which time it expects to experience an “unmet bed demand” of 7,109.
The total inmate population is serving an average sentence of 12.85 years, and the TDOC has noted that “the percentage of parole hearings resulting in a parole grant decreased 7.6 percent between 2012 and 2015,” while “only 28% percent of incarcerated felons are being granted parole in accordance with their release eligibility date.”
The tax dollars spent annually on incarceration would be money well spent if Tennesseans were getting an increase in public safety in return. However, the opposite is true. Tennessee boasts a violent crime rate that is 39 percent higher than the national average. The FBI’s 2016 Uniform Crime Report indicates that Tennessee’s violent crime rate (per 100,000 residents) is at 632.9, up from 618.9 from the previous year. The average crime rate of Tennessee’s neighbors is 387.9, with the next highest rate being Arkansas at 550.9.
Moreover, TDOC reports that an average of 5,692 probationers each year between FY14 and FY15 were revoked back to prison, but that the return fell to 5,022 probationers in FY16. TDOC credits this reduction to the recent implementation of a graduated sanction policy, and it anticipates the FY17 return total to further decrease to approximately 4,800.
In 2017, Right on Crime launched in Tennessee, and in doing so, hired Julie Warren as a full-time State Director to advocate for conservative criminal justice reform policies for the Volunteer State. Julie works and resides in Nashville, Tennessee. Right on Crime has also partnered with the Beacon Center of Tennessee, a conservative, free-market think tank, and founding member of the Tennessee Coalition for Sensible Justice alongside the Nashville Chamber of Commerce, the ACLU of Tennessee, Goodwill Industries of Middle Tennessee, and the Tennessee County Services Association.
In 2018, the legislature passed and the governor signed the Juvenile Justice Reform Act of 2018 (HB 2271). The Juvenile Justice Reform Act reflects portions of the recommendations by the Joint Ad-Hoc Tennessee Blue Ribbon Task Force on Juvenile Justice, an inter-branch work group chaired by Senate Leader Mark Norris and House Speaker Beth Harwell.
One vital function of HB 2271 is the accountability mechanism created by requiring government stakeholders to develop a plan for the “comprehensive, accurate collection of data and performance measures from all juvenile courts in the state.” This data will inform and drive future juvenile justice reform efforts, particularly efforts to significantly reduce the number of unruly and delinquent youths subject to out-of-home placements. Further, the Act calls for the use of validated risk and needs assessment tools. This tool will measure the risks and needs of each child engaged in the juvenile justice system and inform juvenile court decisions. A vital benefit to consistent use of the required validated risk and needs assessments is a reduction in disparate outcomes based on where a child resides within the state.
To accompany the Juvenile Justice Reform Act, and per Governor Haslam’s request, the Legislature appropriated $4.5 million in the FY 2018-2019 budget into evidence-based community and treatment programs for rural jurisdictions where children are detained due to lack of alternative programing.
On the adult corrections’ side, the Legislature also created four pilot grants, $250,000 each, that will be awarded to sheriff departments or county probation offices in rural counties to fund reentry programs designed to reduce recidivism and probation revocations. To incentivize the successful outcomes, 75 percent of the grant funds will be disbursed up front, with the remaining 25 percent disbursed upon a measurable showing of decreased rates of recidivism or supervision revocations. The hope is the success of these programs will trigger the expansion of the grant program to more counties and ultimately result in the decrease in jail populations throughout Tennessee.
With overwhelming support from the Legislature, “the Fresh Start Act” was passed and signed into law in 2018. This important reentry reform prohibits occupational licensing authorities from denying a license due to a criminal history, unless the authority can establish by a preponderance of the evidence that a direct relationship exists between the past criminal acts and the occupation for which a license is sought. This reform will remove a roadblock to gainful employment for incarcerated individuals who are trying to re-enter and become productive members of society.