Tennessee Evaluates Criminal Justice System for First Time in Two Decades

It’s time to take a long look at the state’s criminal sentencing structures that have been in place for a long time, more than 20 years.

That was the general idea expressed by witnesses — ranging from law enforcement officials and attorneys to criminal justice advocates — during two days of hearings held by the Tennessee Senate Judiciary Committee to hear testimony about criminal justice reform issues.

The information collected will soon be shared with Gov. Bill Haslam’s recently created Sentencing and Recidivism Task Force, said state Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown, the upper chamber’s Judiciary Committee chairman and a member of Haslam’s task force.

Those testifying at the hearing also said with the state’s repeat offender rate at near-50 percent, the state should consider programs to help inmates while in prison to lower their chance of reoffending.

In 1985, after Tennessee wound up in a court battle with the federal government over the number of prisoners piling up, a special session of the General Assembly passed legislation that granted many offenders an early release, and kept others free altogether. Tennessee’s criminal code was later “revised” and “thoroughly modernized” in 1989.

And in recent years overcrowding in Tennessee’s state prisons and county jails has been highlighted by newspapers and TV stations.

According to a report on prisoners in the U.S. in 2013, released Tuesday by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, although the countrywide prisoner population rose and 9,000 more convicts were admitted to prisons and jails than were released nationally, Tennessee released 2,545 more prisoners from incarceration than were admitted. But the number of those imprisoned statewide still rose from 28,411 to 28,521.

However, state Rep. William Lamberth, R-Cottontown, a legislative member of the task force, told TNReport last month he doesn’t think the focus of the discussion ought to be on prison overcrowding, per se.

The state should focus on helping “low-level, youthful offenders,” by helping them “re-enter society” as “productive members,” said Lamberth, a former prosecutor.

“For those people who either cannot, or simply will not, follow the rules and follow the laws of this state, those repeat aggressive, violent offenders — we need to focus on locking them up as long as possible, and have truth in sentencing,” he added.

Haslam launched the task force in August to take a look at who’s serving time in the Volunteer State, and whether there’s a better way to deal with nonviolent and low-level offenders to provide plenty of room in the state’s Big Houses for the baddest of the bad.

The task force will involve a coordinated effort with VERA, a nonpartisan, nonprofit center for justice policy.

Because “effective” sentencing laws can solve discrepancies that “compromise public safety,” the group will examine Tennessee’s sentencing structure to ensure it’s “in line with the variety and severity of criminal behavior,” according to the news release.

However, a dearth of defense jurists or victim’s advocates has been noted among task force appointees, which are “overwhelmingly Republican.”

In fact, the task force includes only one Democrat, Memphis Rep. John DeBerry, Jr., and just one public defender — Gerald Melton, 16th Judicial District — among its 27 members. The group also includes five GOP legislators (three lawyers), four current and former district attorneys, four law enforcement department heads, three criminal judges, three executive department commissioners, Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell and state Board of Parole Chairman Richard Montgomery, a former GOP state legislator.

Task force members were selected to represent communities around the state, and to include people with “extensive knowledge and experience” in sentencing and recidivism, said Dave Smith, Governor Haslam’s spokesman, in an e-mailed statement.

“Hundreds of Tennesseans”will likely be consulted in the future as the task force takes a deeper look at the issues, Smith’s e-mail continued.

According to Tennessee Department of Correction statistics for fiscal year 2012-2013, the state’s system-wide felony inmate population included:

  • Murder: 4,024 inmates serving an average sentence of 28 years and two months
  • Forcible Sexual Assault: 2,913 inmates serving an average sentence of 24 years and one month
  • Aggravated Assault: 3,392 inmates serving an average sentence of 13 years and three months
  • Burglary: 3,394 inmates serving an average sentence of seven years and seven months
  • Aggravated Robbery: 2,935 inmates serving an average sentence of 17 years
  • Drug offense, cocaine: 2,818 inmates serving an average sentence of 17 years
  • Other drug offenses: 3,351 inmates serving an average sentence of eight years.

The 6,169 drug offenders, at 20 percent of the overall population, represent the majority of inmates. In comparison, those convicted of aggravated assault make up 11 percent of the population, and inmates convicted of aggravated robbery make up less than 10 percent.

Though not familiar with Tennessee’s prison system, Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project, a Washington D.C.-based sentencing reform advocacy and research group, said nationally there’s been a “dramatic rise in the number of drug offenders incarcerated in recent decades,” who “are not the kingpins of the drug trade,”many of whom would benefit from “treatment alternatives to prison.”

“So it would be useful for the policymakers to take a close look at population and see to what extent substance abuse is the underlying problem, and are there other approaches that could divert some of them from a prison sentence,” Mauer told TNReport.