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Editorial by PLN Assoc. Editor re early prisoner releases in Tennessee

Tennessean, Jan. 1, 2009.
Editorial by PLN Assoc. Editor re early prisoner releases in Tennessee - Tennessean 2009

December 2, 2009

Guest editorial: Judge by more than violence

By Alex Friedmann

Tennessean - Other Views

When Tennessee Department of Correction Commissioner George Little informed Gov. Phil Bredesen that the state would have to release up to 4,000 prisoners due to $53 million in proposed budget cuts, he said the plan wasn't a "scare tactic."

I'm in favor of such releases in principle. Every dollar spent on prisons and incarceration is a dollar not spent on health care, education or social services for the state's needy families. But when people say something isn't a scare tactic, it often is. And unless releases are done responsibly — should they actually occur — the result could be frightening, indeed.

If 4,000 prisoners are slated for early release to help balance Tennessee's budget, which ones will be released and under what circumstances? According to Department of Correction spokesperson Dorinda Carter, only inmates with nonviolent low-level felonies (Class C, D and E) would be eligible.

Consider, though, that prisoners convicted of nonviolent offenses — primarily theft, burglary and drug-related crimes — have higher recidivism rates than those with more serious convictions. According to a 2005 report by the Department of Correction, offenders convicted of "person" offenses (including homicide and assault) had a 32 percent recidivism rate over a three-year period, while the recidivism rate for property offenses (theft, burglary and robbery) was 43 percent and the rate for societal crimes (drug and alcohol offenses) was 41 percent. Determining which prisoners should be released should be based not simply on the severity of their crimes but also on their likelihood of reoffending.

Close CCA facilities

More importantly, what is going to happen to those 4,000 prisoners once they're back on the street? Where are they going to find jobs? Absent a substantial investment in re-entry programs, many will return to prison, making any budget savings short-lived. There is a dearth of halfway houses for released offenders, and the few organizations that assist ex-cons — such as Dismas House, Project Return, Chattanooga Endeavors and WesTCORE — are ill-equipped to help an influx of thousands of former inmates. Simply dumping prisoners without adequate post-release assistance will set them up for failure.

Here's one idea. The state pays about $63 million annually to house 3,400 prisoners at the Whiteville and Hardeman County correctional facilities, which are operated by Corrections Corporation of America. Releasing at least that number of inmates system-wide and canceling the contracts at those two CCA facilities would save more than enough to balance the Department of Correction's budget. The contracts can be canceled with 90 days notice, and the extra $10 million in savings could be invested in re-entry programs. As an added benefit no state employees would lose their jobs.

Of course, that's unlikely to happen. Although the state considered canceling its contract to house prisoners at Whiteville, it decided to extend the contract for another year. CCA has deep and longstanding political ties in Tennessee. Since 2006, CCA and its officials have contributed to the political campaigns of at least 27 state lawmakers plus Gov. Bredesen, the state Democratic Party, Tennessee Legislative Campaign Committee and Senate Democratic Caucus. At least someone has money to spend.