Most of Tennessee's 17 African American legislators took part in a town hall meeting at the National Civil Rights Museum Tuesday to talk about where their legislative efforts stand in a Republican super-majority state.
The Tennessee Black Caucus is a group of Democratic state representatives and senators mostly from urban centers like Memphis and Nashville.
The lawmakers opened the event dubbed the “State of Black Tennessee Town Hall Tour” with a laundry list of last session’s victories and defeats, with criminal justice among the winning issues. This included measures that did away with a state fee to expunge criminal records and an act to provide femine hygiene products to prisoners for free.
“The prison system is over crowded, and it’s predominantly populated by people who look like us,” said Memphis Representative London Lamar. “What we want to do is to make sure that there is equity and fairness and equality in how we punish individuals and making sure that we’re not ending their lives by [sending them] through the prison system.”
Memphis Senator Katrina Robinson highlighted a successful bill that created standards for young people in juvenile detention.
“You’ll see criminal justice reform that looks like: okay, we need to make sure that we’re going through the process of reforming an individual who is coming into contact with our system,” she said. “But you’ll also see criminal justice reform that looks like: okay, what do we do with sentencing and mandatory minimums.”
Robinson says future reforms could include ending solitary confinement for incarcerated juveniles and renewed attention to mental health services.
Cameron Sexton, a Republican due to be voted House Speaker later this month, also came to the meeting and sat in the audience with his family. He said criminal justice and mental health are two areas of reform that can bring both parties together next session.
Some Democrats, however, said they want the future speaker to address what they describe as a culture of racism in the legislature.
Sexton does not agree with that description, but instead said, “Do I think that we need to have better relationships outside Nashville and do more things to build those relationships? Absolutely.”
He says he’d like to see lawmakers do more community service collectively in one anothers’ constituencies.
“Really get the body out and get us back as a unit into the community so we can work together [and] build relationships with one another,” he said.
Two major setbacks for the caucus this year, lawmakers say, was the passage of Governor Bill Lee’s so-called education savings account plan, a program similar to school vouchers to be implemented in Shelby and Davidson counties and a law imposing criminal penalties on voter registration groups that submit a certain amount of erroneous registration forms.
In part, the new registration sanctions stem from the 2018 elections in Shelby County where a flood of voter forms on the final day of registration overwhelmed election officials. A majority of the eleventh-hour registrations, officials contend, were invalid, but critics argue the new law amounts to voter suppression.
Caucus Chair G.A. Hardaway said, moving forward, the voting bloc will look for ways to “at least mitigate the damage from vouchers."
“We may not be able to reverse the actual bill itself,” he said. “We’ve got to find a way to put more money and invest more money into public education.”
The Tennessee Black Caucus will continue to hold town halls across the state, with the next one slated for Nashville.