Friday, April 23, 2021

Lee's criminal justice reform focuses on re-entry, imprisonment alternatives

By Jon Styf, (The Center Square)  April 16, 2021- Gov. Bill Lee has promised criminal justice reform in Tennessee, and several of his proposed bills that are set to move forward in coming weeks could have a significant effect on those in the state’s prison system. 

“I've been thinking about it for 20 years,” Lee said recently during a roundtable he held on the subject last week. “Now, we're in spot in Tennessee to really make substantive change.” 

Many of the changes proposed in the bills and in Lee's amended budget aim to reduce the prison population while focusing on re-entry for nonviolent offenders. The Reentry Success Act – House Bill 785/Senate Bill 768 – would create a mandatory supervision program for those released from prison while also creating an assumption that a prisoner will be released when the parole date is reached. The program is budgeted to cost the state $20 million a year but also is estimated to save $1.6 million in the first year and $74 million annually over the next 10 years by housing fewer prisoners. 

“To conservatives in the legislature, I'd say, this is the smart way to deal with crime,” Pat Nolan, who started the Nolan Center for Justice, said during the roundtable. “And by the savings from reducing the prison population intelligently, you can fund other programs that help prepare the inmates while they're inside to be better neighbors when they get out.” 

HB 785 is scheduled to be discussed Thursday on the House floor, and SB 768 is scheduled for a hearing Tuesday in the Senate Finance, Ways and Means Committee. Lee’s amended budget proposal included funding for these bills and several programs related to them, including Men of Valor ($499,500), Next Door, Inc. ($400,000) and Lipscomb correctional higher education ($121,100). 

Men of Valor is a faith-based nonprofit with the goal of having prisoners become believers and “equip them to re-enter society as men of integrity.” Next Door provides addiction services to women in crisis, and Lipscomb provides a LIFE program where traditional students learn beside prisoners from the Tennessee Prison for Women. 

“I got involved in the subject of criminal justice reform because I got involved in a prison ministry, called Men of Valor, that many of you've heard me talk about,” Lee said. “Worked with re-entry, with mentoring men coming out of prison, employed formerly incarcerated individuals. I really saw firsthand beginning 20 years ago the tension and the push and pull between retribution and rehabilitation. I also saw what I thought was a system that wasn't really working for anybody. It wasn't working well for the victims. It wasn't working well for those that were incarcerated.” 

Another part of Lee’s plan, a community corrections bill that would look for alternatives to imprisonment, also is scheduled to be discussed Thursday on the House floor and in the Senate Finance, Ways and Means Committee on Tuesday. That legislation, House Bill 784 and Senate Bill 767, is estimated in Lee’s budget to save the state $9 million annually while keeping people out of prison and putting them in community-based alternative programs. 

House bill co-sponsor Michael Curcio, R-Dickson, said that the two bills took into account victims’ rights groups' opinions from a roundtable conducted during the process of creating the bills. Curcio said HB 784’s goal is to help those normally sent to jail after mental health or substance abuse issues by giving them the help they need to prevent them from returning to jail. 

Rep. Karen Camper, D-Memphis, said the cost savings could be used for more programs. “We could invest more in people who could have more wraparound services versus the savings just going back into the general fund,” Camper said. 

Tennessee District Attorneys General Conference President Amy Weirich said the group generally is supportive of the bills' goals but voiced concern over some of the sentencing requirement changes that limit district attorneys from making their own decisions on whether prison or treatment are the best options for a defendant. 
Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry commended Lee’s plan, saying similar programs have worked in Texas. “You can call me a lot of things, which I have been called a lot of things in my political life, but soft on crime is not one of them," Perry said. "And in Texas, we believe in dispensing justice. But there's nothing just when the system is broken in the sense of you're either putting people in prison that don't deserve to be there. And my hat's really off to you from the standpoint of your Republican members and, for that matter, your Democrat members of the Tennessee Legislature, can go home to their constituents and say, 'We were really smart on crime.' ”

Rod's update and comment: On April 22, HB 785 passed the House by a vote of 90 to 1. The Senate Finance, Ways, and Means Committee approved SB 768 and passed it on to the Calendar Committee. On April 22, HB784 passed the House by a vote of 90-1 and SB767 passed the Senate Finance, Ways, and Means Committee and was referred to the Calendar Committee. 

I am pleased to see these reforms pass. Favoring second chances and redemption and reform is not the same as being soft on crime.  I am proud of Governor Lee for embracing prison reform and making it happen. 

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