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Tennessee Criminal Justice Reforms Could Follow Gov. Bill Lee’s Task Force



Gov. Bill Lee’s criminal justice reform task force unveiled 23 policy recommendations Thursday afternoon. The suggestions range from expanding educational opportunities in prison to rewriting the state’s sentencing code.

Now, it’s up to lawmakers to decide which proposals will make it onto the legislative agenda.

In recent years, Tennessee has lagged behind in the country’s push toward criminal justice reform. While nearly three dozen other states have shrunk their incarceration rates over the past decade, Tennessee’s prison population has grown. And yet, the task force found, the state boasts one of the highest violent crime rates in the nation.

Lee has committed to decreasing crime while also reducing the number of people who land back behind bars after they’ve been released. For the governor, criminal justice reform is personal. He’s spent years volunteering in correctional facilities with Men of Valor, a faith-based nonprofit that helps people transition back into life outside of prison.

“I was in a state prison [the] day before yesterday and met with a whole group of inmates, most of whom will be getting out,” Lee said at Thursday’s meeting. “I was reminded as I spoke to them that what we do today in this effort, and what we take from today and move forward, how we do that will change the outcomes of those men that I was speaking to.”

House Majority Leader William Lamberth said the state has already started taking steps toward criminal justice reform by repealing felony sentences for several low-level crimes, like skipping a court appearance. But the former prosecutor said he’s glad that helping people stay out of prison is finally a priority.

“How can we solve this?” Lamberth said after the task force’s meeting. “You know, just because somebody has committed a crime does not guarantee that they’re going to come back to incarceration. Which, unfortunately, is the system we have now.”

Lamberth thinks the state should adjust its sentencing structure, so that people who commit serious violent crimes — especially those who do so repeatedly — spend more time in prison, while those who are ready to reenter society face shorter probation terms once they’re released.

Lamberth said he expects the governor to take up several of the group’s recommendations next year.

“This group has worked extremely hard to dig into the data, to look at what is driving crime, and specifically violent crime in our state,” the representative said. “I think there are some easy wins right out of the gate.”

But comprehensive reform won’t be cheap.

Brandon Gibson, the governor’s senior advisor who chaired the task force, said Lee’s office will need to think through the potential budget impacts before presenting the group’s policy proposals to the General Assembly.

Some recommendations, like changes to the sentencing statutes, will have to wait until at least 2021, according to the task force’s report. Others, Gibson said, will be incorporated into this coming year’s legislative plan.

“I wish we could get them all done at once,” she said after the meeting. “The ones that we need to really look at are ones dealing with mental health and substance abuse services.”

Gibson said she hopes the upcoming reform measures will be both “tough on crime” and “smart on crime.” Each policy recommendation, she said, is rooted in data.

“The anecdote here and there can really drive a discussion,” she said. “But it might not be representative of the system as a whole. So it’s important for us to take a very high-level view.”

Samantha Max is a Report for America corps member.

Tennessee Criminal Justice Reforms Could Follow Gov. Bill Lee’s Task Force

Copyright 2019 WPLN News

Samantha Max covers criminal justice for WPLN and joins the newroom through the Report for America program. This is her second year with Report for America: She spent her first year in Macon, Ga., covering health and inequity for The Telegraph and macon.com.