Lee makes signs favorable to judicial, prison reform

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Gov. Bill Lee in his state of the state speech March 4 indicates an open mind toward a more just legal system in Tennessee. Here are excerpts from his speech suggesting a slightly more biblical ethic insofar as how people accused and convicted of crimes should be treated. — DJT

Gov. Bill Lee makes a state of the state speech and tells of reforms that at least give rise to consideration of the costs of punitive incarceration. (Photo Greg Vital)

I said there are four things we must do if we want to lead the nation. First, we must build better education system. Second, we must build a criminal justice system that is tough, smart, and above all, just.

For decades, this country has been too willing to fight crime on the surface alone – “lock ‘em up and throw away the key.” Now, in more ways than one, we’re paying the price for that.

Tennessee is currently incarcerating more people for longer than we ever have and the population in our county jails is growing daily. In fact, at the bottom of this hill begins the most incarcerated zip code in America.

Incarceration can have a generational impact. Children with an incarcerated parent are at greater risk of being incarcerated themselves.

And besides the human cost, there’s the actual cost. Incarcerating an adult in Tennessee costs $28,000 taxpayer dollars per year. Incarcerating a juvenile for a year can cost many times more than that. And for all the trouble and cost, what are our criminal justice outcomes?

Violent crime is up. Recidivism is high. Jails are struggling to make ends meet.

Let me be clear, the punishment for violent crime must be swift and severe, but we must also get better at helping those who will be released prepare to re-enter society, not re-enter prison.

It’s past time that our state’s elected leaders speak with one voice on this important issue: when it comes to reforming our state’s justice system, the cost of doing nothing isn’t zero. Crime victims pay the price. Families pay the price. And taxpayers pay the price.

‘Smart reforms’

In my proposal to the legislature this year, I recommend a series of smart reforms that will make a big difference.

One area of reform my administration will address is our use of community supervision for low-risk offenders. Community supervision allows us to provide the corrections oversight necessary to hold someone accountable for their crime without incurring the economic and social cost of incarceration. It costs about 20 times more to incarcerate someone than to put them under community supervision, and the latter leads to better outcomes.

One of the first things we will do is add funds to the Electronic Monitoring Indigency Fund and add the use of GPS monitoring so that low-risk, non-violent individuals can keep their jobs and provide for their families instead of spending unnecessary time in jail.

Preparing prisoners for re-entry

Of those who are incarcerated, 95% are not serving a life sentence and will eventually come out and we need to be sure they are prepared for that.

Why? Because every successful reentry means one less crime, and one less victim. My commitment to having fewer crime victims in this state is reflected in a proposed expansion of education and re-entry counselling opportunities in our prisons. Educational attainment for incarcerated people can reduce their risk of recidivism by up to 43%.

Another important part of successful re-entry is stable employment.

For that reason, we have introduced a bill eliminating the expungement fees for those already eligible under the law to alleviate the cost burden of getting back on their feet.

Role in drug war to continue

We must also take bold steps to stop the scourge of drugs illegally trafficked into our state.

I pledged to make Tennessee a state that drug traffickers fear, and I will make sure that our prosecutors and our law enforcement have the tools they need to make that a reality.

We are increasing the penalties on dangerous drugs like fentanyl and making it clear that we will have no leniency on high level drug dealers who target the residents of this state.

And we need more than just strong laws to keep our communities safe; we also need strong law enforcement.

It is no secret that Tennessee lags other states on law enforcement and corrections pay, which impacts our hiring and retention rates.

We are increasing investments in correctional officer pay and training opportunities, and this budget calls for new investments in our law enforcement capacity, improving the in-service training pay supplement, and provide new funding to support the increased demands of our Drug Overdose and Violent Crime Task Forces.

Lee orders study on prison costs

Furthermore, tomorrow morning, I will sign an Executive Order creating a task force to address the growing fiscal and social costs of incarceration.

I appreciate the focus placed on these issues by members of the General Assembly and our Supreme Court in recent years, and it is time to move forward in a comprehensive way.

This task force will be led by Judge Brandon Gibson from my office and will include crime victims and their families, members of the general assembly, state agencies, law enforcement, community and faith based programs, and, yes, even former inmates.

Fundamentally, this task force will recommend legislative and budgetary changes that will help reduce recidivism, make our communities safer and save tax dollars.

I know we can do things differently, because I’ve been involved with groups who have made a difference. Nonprofits like Men of Valor in Nashville are helping those who enter prison be better prepared to reenter society. The recidivism rate of Men of Valor’s program graduates is less than one of third of the statewide average.

One person who benefited from this group is a man named Marcus Martin. Marcus was incarcerated for five years. By his own admission, he was on a quick path back to prison, until he got involved with Men of Valor. Now, on the outside for 16 years, Marcus is a full-time prison minister, helping and making a huge impact on those still on the inside. ***

My fellow Tennesseans, this is a story of redemption, this is a story of Tennesseans helping other Tennesseans.

It’s also a story of fiscal responsibility… and common sense.

We need more of these stories, and when we get them, it won’t be surprising to see that our crime and recidivism rates start going down.

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