The Tennessee State Capitol building on a sunny day

The following is a statement from Len Engel, Director of Policy & Campaigns for the Crime and Justice Institute, on the Tennessee Legislature’s passage of Alternatives to Incarceration (SB767/HB784) and the Reentry Success Act (SB768/HB785), landmark reform legislation. The Crime and Justice Institute provided technical assistance to Tennessee leaders in development of the bills as part of the federal Justice Reinvestment Initiative.

“This legislation is the culmination of an intensive, two-year effort to improve Tennessee’s criminal justice system by employing proven strategies to reduce recidivism, address unmet behavioral health needs, and improve public safety. When the COVID-19 pandemic threatened to derail progress that was already underway, Tennessee’s leaders refused to let the momentum for meaningful change falter. Instead, they doubled down on their commitment and forged ahead with an even more ambitious package of reforms.

“The unanimous support in the Senate and nearly-unanimous votes in the House, represents a recognition that locking more people up and keeping them there longer, especially for lower-level offenses or those with behavioral health needs, doesn’t decrease crime or increase public safety. It only packs prisons and perpetuates cycles of poverty and incarceration at extraordinary expense to hardworking taxpayers. With the passage of these bills, lawmakers embraced evidence and data over fear and anecdote, advancing criminal justice legislation that will make Tennessee stronger and safer.”

Task Force Process & Findings
The Justice Reinvestment Initiative (JRI) is a public/private partnership between the United States Department of Justice and The Pew Charitable Trusts. The present effort in Tennessee began in July 2019, when Gov. Lee, Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, Supreme Court Chief Justice Jeffrey Bivins, and House Speaker-Designate Cameron Sexton directed the Criminal Justice Investment Task Force to conduct a comprehensive assessment of the state’s criminal justice system.

As part of JRI, the Task Force examined data from state agencies across the criminal justice system to identify who is entering Tennessee’s prisons and jails on felony offenses and how long they are staying. The Task Force analyzed Tennessee’s sentencing and community supervision data, examined examples from similar states, and reviewed the latest research on evidence-based practices. Relying on data, research, and examples, the Task Force then engaged in robust discussion to develop solutions that secure a better public safety return on state corrections spending. The Task Force’s charge was to identify strategies for improving public safety and to make recommendations for the Legislature to consider responding to the data.

The Task Force’s review found that:    

  • Tennessee’s incarceration rate is 10 percent higher than the national average, and the state’s prison population has grown 12 percent over the past decade.
  • Despite this growth and an ever-increasing corrections budget that surpassed $1 billion in FY2018, Tennessee’s recidivism rates remain high:
    • Forty-seven percent of individuals released from felony incarceration are arrested again within three years of release.
  • Tennessee sends a large number of individuals convicted of non-violent offenses to prison and jail every year:
      • Seventy-four percent of felony admissions in FY2018 were for non-violent offenses categorized by the Tennessee Department of Corrections as property, drug, societal and vehicular offenses.
      • Thirty-nine percent of admissions were for community supervision failures, representing a missed opportunity to intervene while individuals were supervised in the community.
  • Tennessee’s female incarceration rate is 11th highest in the nation with female admissions growing 12 percent over the past decade and a disproportionately high number of women incarcerated from the eastern part of the state.
  • While overall community supervision revocations have dropped in recent years, the state still saw more than 4,200 revocations from community supervision in FY2018 for a non-criminal violation of a supervision condition.
  • This population growth has had little to no impact on public safety and has contributed to dangerous levels of institutional overcrowding, particularly in local county jails where one in four state prisoners serving time for felony offenses are housed.

Task Force Recommendations
The Task Force released a comprehensive package of 23 criminal justice policy recommendations designed to:

  • Strengthen responses to individuals with behavioral health needs,
  • Improve access to treatment and services of those housed in local jails,
  • Tailor responses to different types of conduct,
  • Improve the efficiency and effectiveness of community supervision, and
  • Minimize barriers to successful reentry.

SB 767/HB 784: Alternatives to Incarceration

  • Encourages the use of treatment options for individuals with behavioral health needs by expanding alternatives to incarceration.
  • Promotes the use of evidence-based risk assessment tools that help magistrates make smart, fair decisions about pre-trial detention.
  • Eliminates pre-trial detention for fees-based driver’s license violations.
  • Reduces probation term lengths to ensure supervision resources are focused on those who need them most.
  • Creates a tiered system of custodial sanctions to deter individuals on probation from committing technical violations and avoid the costs of a full revocation.
  • Permits judges to award sentencing credit for successful time spent under supervision.

SB 768/HB 785: Reentry Success Act

  • Creates a process for video victim impact statements to allow victims to have their voices heard at parole hearings without having to be physically present.
  • Eliminates certain fees related to driver’s license suspension.
  • Streamlines the parole process to eliminate bottlenecks and prioritize timely release for low risk individuals who have avoided infractions.
  • Creates a tiered system of custodial sanctions to deter individuals on parole from committing technical violations and avoid the costs of a full revocation.
  • Creates a one-year period of mandatory reentry supervision to provide support and accountability to all individuals released from prison.
  • Requires TDOC to pay a stipend to counties for implementing evidence-based programming including substance abuse, reentry, and vocational training programs for Tennesseans serving felony sentences in jails.
  • Reduces liability for employers hiring individuals with criminal convictions, and increases partnerships to provide educational and workforce development programs to reduce recidivism rates of people held in local jails.

Justice Reinvestment:
Many states have adopted policies that reduce the unnecessary use of incarceration and increase public safety by reducing recidivism through a “justice reinvestment” strategy, including Georgia, Mississippi, Nevada and Utah. These states have revised sentencing and corrections policies to focus state prison beds on individuals engaged in chronic and violent criminal behavior, and invested in more effective and less costly strategies to reduce recidivism, address gaps in victims’ services, and improve public safety.

With the passage of SB767/HB784 and SB768/HB785, Tennessee joins the list of states that have charted a new path focused on data and research and a thoughtful process designed to identify problems and develop sustainable solutions.