Task Force on Prison Sentencing Set to Launch

Gov. Bill Haslam’s sentencing-and-recidivism task force will hold its first meeting Tuesday. Tennessee hasn’t undertaken a serious comprehensive examination of prison sentencing in more than 20 years.

When the governor announced the task force’s creation last month the administration issued a press release stating that one of its primary goals will be to look at sentencing for a range of offenses and consider if they are “in line with the variety and severity of criminal behavior.” If punishments don’t meaningfully fit crimes it can “compromise public safety,” according to the press release.

The task force is made up of more than two dozen members, including lawmakers, prosecutors, corrections officials, judges, cops, victim-rights advocates and community organizers. After the membership of the task force was announced, the Memphis Commercial Appeal noted a lack of representation from groups or individuals that advocate for inmate rights. However, state Department of Corrections Commissioner Derrick Schofield said that as the panel “delves deeper into the issues surrounding sentencing and recidivism, we anticipate hundreds of Tennesseans being consulted to bring even more great minds to the table.”

“Recidivism is a huge issue for us in Tennessee and sentencing has become an area of heightened interest all around the country,” Haslam said last month. “So we are pulling together a lot of people who have an interest or are involved in it, from judges to law enforcement folks to parole folks to social workers and some legislators as well, to help study the problem.”

Tennessee’s incarceration rate as of 2010 was 740 per 100,000 people, according to the Prison Policy Initiative, whose numbers were compiled from U.S. Census data. The state’s incarceration rate, while lower than Louisiana’s 1,341 per 100,000, or Mississippi’s 1,155, is higher than the rate reported by most nations, including Russia’s 475, Cuba’s 510, China’s 121, Israel’s 223, Egypt’s 80 and Thailand’s 398.

Members of the Tennessee Senate Judiciary Committee opened hearings into the issues earlier this month. A number of witnesses from national groups and other states discussed policies being implemented at the federal level and in other parts of the country, and what the impact of those policies has been.

John Malcolm of the Heritage Foundation’s Edwin Meese III Center for Legal and Judicial Studies observed the Tennessee Department of Correction’s budget has risen by 28.4 percent over past 5 years, and since 1999 the number of incarcerated felons has grown by 32.6 percent. He said five of the state’s 14 prisons contain more inmates than they were designed to house, and another eight are operating at over 95 percent of assigned capacity.

But state prison populations are only one part of the picture because Tennessee relies heavily on local jails for overflow, Malcolm added. The state prison population has grown by 26.3 percent in the last 15 years, while local jails have grown by a “staggering” 51.1 percent.

Malcolm said another problem is a lack of community supervision personnel. Tennessee only has about 759 probation and parole officers to supervise 70,000 parolees and probationers. “Such a system presents a facade, but not the reality, of protecting public safety,” he said.

Expanding community-supervision programs in lieu of incarceration would help, Malcolm said, because oftentimes sending low-level offenders to prison can be more harmful than helpful both for the individual and society. Community supervision programs also tend to cost less, he added.

Likewise, Malcolm said Tennessee should consider easing up on the post-incarceration “collateral consequences” faced by former inmates. While some offender-restrictions make sense, such as preventing felons from owning guns, others do not, he said. Unreasonably restricting ex-offenders from gaining certain occupational licenses, for example, makes it “extremely difficult for people who already face great hurdles to become gainfully employed,” he said.

Incarceration is just one part of lowering the crime rate, experts say, accountable for only about 25 to 35 percent of reduction. Sentencing reforms like “ending mandatory minimums, ending truth in sentencing, and revising severe penalties for drug offenses” have been effective for other states pursuing a lower incarceration rate, said Nancy Fishman of the Vera Institute for Justice, a national group that promotes prison-reform initiatives. The Vera Institute will be helping the governor’s task force conduct data and policy analysis.

The impact of the war on drugs on the overall prison system was mentioned several times in the Judiciary Committee hearing, including by Doug Varney, head of the state Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services.

“What we’ve been doing, really for the past several decades, is unfortunately just not working,” Varney said. “The war on drugs has ended up being really a war on the people we love, and in ineffective waves we’re incarcerating people and making an addiction problem even more serious because of some ways that they’ve been handled.”

Varney, also a member of the governor’s task force, suggested expanding treatment opportunities for low-level drug offenders rather than funneling them into prison.