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Report: Tennessee Prison Population Climbs, Bucks Nationwide Trend

Incarceration is not the answer to crime, concludes a December 19, 2019 report by the Tennessee Criminal Justice Investment Task Force (CJITF). “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,” the report states. “These trends are especially noteworthy in light of 34 States reducing both their imprisonment and crime rate” between 2008 and 2017.

The CJITF was created by a March 2019 executive order by Gov. Bill Lee. It comprised a diverse body of criminal justice stakeholders from all three branches of government and was tasked with carrying out a comprehensive review of Tennessee’s criminal justice system.

From 1978 to 2008, Tennessee’s prison population exploded by 367%, increasing from under 6,000 prisoners to over 27,000. While the prison population nationwide declined by 7% from 2008 to 2017, Tennessee’s prison population grew by 6%. In 2017, Tennessee incarcerated 429 of every 100,000 citizens, which is 10% higher than the national average. Its female prison population grew by 30%, pushing its female incarceration rate to 53% above the national average.

Since 2009, Tennessee has increased its annual spending on prisons by $250 million, resulting in $1 billion in annual spending on prisons. “Despite this sizable investment in an expanding prison population, there is no little evidence that indicates Tennessee has experienced improvements to public safety as a result.” While property and crimes declined by 25% and 6%, respectively, over the last decade, “Tennessee had the nation’s fourth-highest violent crime rate and the seventh-highest homicide rate in 2018.”

The CJITF’s analysis concluded several factors contributed to that result. The 12% increase in the prison population over the last decade was “driven by a growth in time served due to increasing sentence lengths and decreasing parole releases.” While the number of prison admissions decreased over the last decade, the number of people entering prison for “non-person” crimes increased to 74%. The female incarceration rate increased by 12% over that period, and the number of technical community supervision violations soared.

Prison sentences increased by six months, to an average of 79 months, over the 10-year period of review. Fraud and theft sentences increased by 20%, and drug sentences increased a whopping 30%. As sentences got longer and more crimes required 85% service of the sentence, the number of paroles decreased because the parole board requires “an individual must be within a certain number of months of the average time served for that offense.” The implementation of “pre-parole conditions,” such as in custody substance abuse, impacted the number of paroles issued.

The CJITF also found issues with treatment of the mentally ill. It found more needed to be done to connect people to diversion centers instead of jails as the primary option. The increase in zero tolerance for technical violations of supervision, such as positive drug screens, was a factor in the prison population increase.

Tennessee has 23,234 prison beds, but it has a prison population of 30,799. The 7,000-bed deficit is serviced by county jails. That has had an impact on recidivism, the report found. Persons released from state prison are rearrested at a 41% rate within three years. That rate jumps by 10%, or 51%, when a person was released from a county jail when completing their prison sentence.

The report made 23 specific recommendations to get better results from the criminal justice system. The CJITF said the state needed to strengthen responses to individuals with behavioral health needs, ensure equal opportunities to state individuals housed in local jails, focus resources on violent and high-risk individuals, improve efficiency and effectiveness of community supervision practices, minimize barriers to successful reentry, and ensure sustainability of criminal justice laws.