The Tennessee State Capitol building on a sunny day

Tennessee leaders work to address recidivism and improve public safety

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – On Dec. 19, Gov. Bill Lee’s Criminal Justice Investment Task Force released a comprehensive package of data-driven policy recommendations for upcoming legislative sessions that seek to improve public safety, increase reentry support and reduce recidivism, address unmet behavioral health needs and make Tennessee communities safer.

“My administration is committed to addressing public safety and reentry throughout Tennessee, and I’m grateful to have the support of the members of this Task Force,” said Gov. Lee. “Dedicated leaders from across our state have come together to address this important issue, and I look forward to reviewing their recommendations.”

The Task Force received technical assistance from the Crime and Justice Institute.

The Task Force’s 23 recommendations are aimed at:

  • Strengthening responses to individuals with behavioral health needs;
  • Equalizing the treatment of those housed in local jails with those housed in state prisons;
  • Tailoring our response to different types of offenses;
  • Improving the efficiency and effectiveness of community supervision; and
  • Minimizing barriers to successful reentry.

In March 2019, Governor Bill Lee established the Criminal Justice Investment Task Force to examine challenges within Tennessee’s criminal justice system. In partnership with Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Jeff Bivins, Lieutenant Governor Randy McNally and House Speaker Cameron Sexton, the Governor charged the Task Force with developing solutions to strengthen public safety through smarter, more deliberate policies grounded in the state’s corrections data. The Task Force engaged in a five-month study of Tennessee’s sentencing and corrections system, which involved analyzing data, evaluating innovative policies and programs at key decision points, reviewing research on what works to reduce recidivism and developing comprehensive and tailored recommendations.

“I appreciate our Governor, my legislative colleagues and all who have been a part of this task force and the ongoing discussions related to much-needed reform within our current criminal justice system,” said House Majority Leader William Lamberth. “This is an issue that is extremely important to our state, and I look forward to the work ahead so we can continue to improve overall safety and keep all Tennesseans safe.”

The Task Force represents diverse perspectives of the criminal justice system including prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges, legislators, law enforcement, state agency directors, justice-involved individuals and advocates for crime victims.

“I commend the task force for its work developing this strong package of recommendations,” said Chief Justice Bivins. “Today marks an important step in the ongoing effort to improve outcomes in Tennessee’s criminal justice system, and I look forward to the continuation of this work during the upcoming legislative session and beyond.”

Over the past 10 years, Tennessee’s incarceration rate has risen to 10 percent above the national average, and its communities are no safer for it. Despite incarcerating more people and spending over $1 billion annually on corrections in the state budget, Tennessee has the fourth highest violent crime rate in the nation and a high recidivism rate, with nearly half of individuals rearrested within three years of their release from custody.

“It’s clear we cannot incarcerate our way out of the issues facing Tennessee’s criminal justice system: high recidivism, soaring costs, and a shortage of behavioral health services in the community,” said Department of Correction Commissioner Tony Parker, who also chaired the Task Force’s Probation and Parole Subcommittee. “The Task Force recommendations offer smart, data-driven policy alternatives that can help move Tennessee forward and promote public safety in our communities.”

The Task Force’s recommendations include increasing access to sentencing alternatives; ensuring everyone who is released from prison or jail has a period of supervision to improve reentry success; streamlining the parole process for individuals sentenced for nonviolent offenses; increasing access to post-secondary education and training opportunities for incarcerated individuals; and improving early detection of behavioral health needs to divert individuals who would be better served in the community. Additional recommendations would launch a comprehensive review of the state’s sentencing code and recommend changes in the 2021 legislative session, establish earned compliance credits for those on community supervision and reduce probation term lengths.

“This undertaking has shown that we need to do a better job of separating those we are mad at from those we are afraid of in our criminal justice system. Currently, we are spending too much to send too many people to prison for too long,” said Representative Curcio. “These recommendations represent a solid framework to improve our criminal justice system, give taxpayers a better return on their public safety investment and build stronger communities for all Tennesseans.”

The interim report, the data presentation used to guide the work of the four subcommittees and the recommendations from the Victim’s Roundtables can be found here.

Members of the Tennessee Justice Investment Task Force are:

  • Steering Committee
    • Brandon Gibson, Senior Advisor to the Governor        
    • Bill Gibbons, Executive Director of the Public Safety Institute at the University of Memphis         
    • Torry Johnson, Professor, Belmont University College of Law
    • Decosta Jenkins, Nashville Electric
    • Josh Smith, founder of 4th Purpose Foundation
  • Subcommittee Chairs
    • Commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Correction, Tony Parker, Chair of Probation & Parole Subcommittee
    • The Honorable John Campbell, Chair of the Sentencing and Criminal Code Subcommittee
    • Commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services, Marie Williams, Chair of the Subcommittee on Mental Health and Substance Use
    • Executive Director of Men of Valor, Raul Lopez, Chair of the Subcommittee on Education, Workforce Development and Reentry
    • Commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Public Safety and Homeland Security, Jeffrey Long, Chair of the Violent Crime Subcommittee
    • Commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services Jennifer Nichols, Chair of the Subcommittee on Drivers of Crime