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.


Recent Reforms

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.

Assessing Risk Assessments

Julie Warren | September 19, 2017
Validated risk assessments are tools that allow the criminal justice system (courts, probation/parole, and corrections) the opportunity to asses each individual offender as just that, an individual. They allow…

More Teens Are Dying from Drug Overdose

Julie Warren | August 21, 2017
Just this week, the National Center for Health Statistics published a study that found a 3.7 increase from 2014 to 2015 in the drug overdose death rate for adolescent…

Opioid Crisis Declared a National Emergency

Julie Warren | August 15, 2017
On August 10th, President Trump announced that the opioid epidemic had risen to the level of a national emergency.  In making his remarks, President Trump vowed to “spend a…

Criminal or Victim?

Julie Warren | August 10, 2017
Yesterday afternoon, while I was working on a blog post that focused on substance abuse as primarily a public health issue, I received a text from my sister informing…

Yes, Tennessee is Ready for Justice Reform

Julie Warren | 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…

The Way Forward

Julie Warren | 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…

Rethinking the Scope of Drug Free School Zone

Julie Warren | August 1, 2017
In 1995, Tennessee enacted The Drug Free School Zone Act—contained in § 39-17-432—for the stated “purpose of providing vulnerable persons in this state an environment in which they can…

Draconian Sanctions Don’t Work

Julie Warren | July 28, 2017
Across the country, folks are beginning to understand that unsuccessful re-entry policies contribute to high recidivism rates. We especially see more conservative lawmakers question whether the prohibitions or impositions…

Unconstitutional Use of Civil Asset Forfeiture

Julie Warren | July 11, 2017
In Tennessee, police officers may legally take your property based on nothing but a mere suspicion that it might have ties to criminal activity. The seizing agency gets to…

New Task Force to Prioritize Juvenile Justice Reform

Julie Warren | June 28, 2017
Tennesseans just gained an important ally in its effort to reform its criminal justice system with the newly formed bipartisan Ad Hoc Tennessee Blue Ribbon Task Force on Juvenile…

Expungement: Helping People Move On

Right on Crime | April 21, 2017
This blog post, written by Julie Warren, originally appeared at the Beacon Center of Tennessee on April 21, 2017.   Most of us will sympathize with folks who have…
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