Tennessee Senate Judiciary Committee Holds Hearings on Criminal Justice Reform
On September 15 and 16, 2014, while Tennessee’s General Assembly was out of session, the Senate Judiciary Committee held hearings on criminal justice reform – the first time a legislative body in the state has comprehensively addressed that topic for at least a decade. The hearings were chaired by Senator Brian Kelsey, and speakers testified on issues ranging from the history of sentencing in Tennessee to the state’s growing prison population, high crime rate and potential solutions to those problems.
According to the FBI, Tennessee had the highest violent crime rate in the nation based on 2012 statistics.
Criminal defense attorney David Raybin, a former district attorney and former member of the Tennessee Sentencing Commission (abolished in 1995), who helped develop Tennessee’s criminal sentencing statutes, testified about the history of sentencing laws in the state, including the Class X laws and 1989 Sentencing Reform Act. He noted that the Sentencing Commission had made a number of recommendations that were ignored by lawmakers.
Others who testified included officials from the district attorney’s office and attorney general’s office. The DA’s office complained that criminal sentences in Tennessee mislead the public and victims, as a ten-year sentence does not mean defendants will serve 10 years. Rather, they are eligible for parole at 30% of their sentence for standard range 1 offenders, and those with “truth in sentencing” sentences may serve 85% rather than 100% of their sentences. Further, life sentences do not mean life in prison, as life-sentenced prisoners can be paroled after serving 51 calendar years. With respect to parole, the DA’s office did not mention that the average parole grant rate in Tennessee is around 36%.
Two members of the Vera Institute of Justice, Rebecca Silber and Nancy Fishman, testified about their review of Tennessee’s criminal justice system and offered suggestions for reforms; the Vera Institute provides research and technical assistance to government agencies to help improve justice systems, policies and practices.
Marc Levin, director of the Center for Effective Justice at the Texas Public Policy Foundation and policy director of Right on Crime, spoke about what Texas has done to reduce its prison population through criminal justice reforms – although Texas presently has the largest state prison population in the nation.
Levin observed that 90% of Tennessee’s corrections budget goes to the state’s prison system instead of probation, drug courts or community supervision programs. “Our view is, the pendulum’s swung a little bit too far,” he stated.
Other speakers at the Committee hearings included Anderson County Mayor Terry Frank, Tennessee ACLU director Hedy Weinberg, Knoxville police chief David Rausch, commissioners of the Department of Mental Health and Department of Safety, Tennessee Department of Correction (TDOC) Commissioner Derrick Schofield, the director of the Tennessee Association of Professional Bail Agents, Court of Criminal Appeals Judge John Everett Williams, the director of the Heritage Foundation’s Edwin Meese III Center for Legal and Judicial Studies, and Tennessee State Employees Association (TSEA) director Tommy Francis.
Commissioner Schofield discussed the need to reduce recidivism rates, while Francis spoke about challenges faced by TDOC employees represented by the TSEA. Charlie White, director of the Association of Professional Bail Agents, mainly addressed the contributions of the for-profit bail industry in terms of providing a means for people to get out of jail (those who can afford to make bond, that is).
Vanderbilt University Professor Chris Slobogin testified three times over the two-day hearings and discussed what other states have done in terms of criminal justice reform – including pretrial release initiatives, de-criminalization, expanding re-entry and community corrections programs, and enacting probation and parole reforms. He also presented recommendations from the Tennessee Consultation on Criminal Justice – a faith-based group working on reform of the state’s justice system.
Those recommendations included: 1) ending the practice of sending technical probation and parole violators to prison when short jail stays of 2 to 3 days would be more effective; 2) increasing parole grant rates; 3) developing effective reentry and community supervision strategies; 4) conducting a study to examine successful programs and policies implemented in other states; 5) reinstituting the Tennessee Sentencing Commission to provide guidance to the legislature about changes to sentencing laws; 6) reinstituting the joint legislative Oversight Committee on Corrections, which was disbanded in 2011, to exercise oversight over the TDOC; and 7) ensuring that the TDOC has current and accurate data with respect to recidivism rates and other statistics.
Additionally, Professor Slobogin cited the need to re-evaluate the role of using privately-operated prisons in Tennessee and recommended that the state consider justice reinvestment initiatives, whereby savings from criminal justice policies that reduce the prison population are reinvested in communities affected by high incarceration rates – such as job creation programs and re-entry programs.
Overall, there was consensus that reforms are needed in Tennessee’s criminal justice system, including changes in sentencing laws, alternatives to incarceration and the need to address a growing prison population – which is currently around 21,180 in TDOC facilities plus another 8,700 convicted felons in local jails. The state recently contracted with Nashville-based Corrections Corporation of America to house prisoners at a 2,500-bed facility in Trousdale County that is expected to open in 2015. CCA already holds one-quarter of the state’s prison population in privately-operated facilities.
PLN managing editor Alex Friedmann, a member of the Tennessee Consultation on Criminal Justice, attended the Senate Judiciary Committee hearings.
Sources: The Tennessean, USA Today, www.hollinslegal.com, Tennessee Senate Judiciary Committee hearings
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