We incarcerate a lot of people in Tennessee. A recent study by the Crime and Justice Institute (CJI) found that Tennessee’s incarceration rate is 10 percent higher than the national average, and that our prison population has grown 400 percent since 1978. In the meantime, Tennessee’s corrections budget now exceeds $1 billion, an increase of 185% since 1991.
What is driving Tennessee’s prison growth? CJI’s study of Tennessee Department of Corrections’ data indicates that 74 percent of admissions into state prison were for felony offenses defined as “non-person” offenses. In other words, offenses that are not characterized as a “crime against the person” under Tennessee code, which those generally require a physical harm or a threat of harm, are otherwise deemed “non-person” offenses. In fact, 60 percent of those admitted into a TDOC prison facility were incarcerated for a property or nonviolent drug offense.
How do Tennesseans feel about Tennessee’s incarceration practices? A 2018 statewide poll by Public Opinion Strategies of 500 registered voters in Tennessee found that “more than two-thirds believe the state’s criminal justice system needs ‘significant improvements.’” Moreover, 50 percent of voters surveyed believed that there were too many people in prison. More specifically, 83 percent of voters believed 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.” Tennesseans, by an overwhelming 90 percent, favored the “reduc[tion of] costly prison time for low-level, non-violent offenders in Tennessee prisons and reinvest some of those savings to create stronger, more cost-effective community based supervision programs that hold offenders accountable for their crimes.”
While CJI’s data paints a less that favorable portrait of Tennessee’s current incarceration practice, it may also serve as a precipice for tremendous change. In fact, with the overwhelming support of Tennesseans and the leadership of Governor Lee and many in the General Assembly, the State of Tennessee is now in a position to lead the Nation in criminal justice reform.