State Seeks ‘Solid Alternatives’ to Incarceration

Longer sentences, rising admissions to state prisons and a slowing in the number of inmates released are contributing to increased prison costs, the state’s top corrections department official said.

One way the state is trying to combat those trends is by developing “solid alternatives to sending somebody to prison,” like drug courts and day-reporting centers, Commissioner Derrick Schofield said during a state budget hearing earlier this month.

Gov. Bill Haslam pressed state prison officials for more detail on why the state’s cost of overseeing inmates is increasing.

“When we have responsibility for an offender, we have responsibility for them,” Haslam said. “I’m just trying to come back and figure out what’s driving that from a bigger picture. Are there other things we can and should be doing as a state?”

In January a new state facility set up to house 1,500 inmates is set to open in Bledsoe County. The prison is an expansion of the Southeastern Tennessee State Regional Correctional Facility.

The Department of Correction is responsible for 107,960 offenders, roughly the population of Murfreesboro, Schofield said. About 30,000 of those people are in prison. The remainder are on probation or parole or under community supervision.

To view other state budget hearings, click here.

Liberty and Justice

Stiffer Penalties for Armed Robbery Proposed

A bill that would strengthen penalties against armed robbers advanced after passage by a state House subcommittee this week.

HB 2813 would increase the minimum jail time of people convicted of armed or aggravated robbery from 30 percent of their sentence to 74 percent of their sentence. Sponsor Gary Odom, D-Nashville, said the bill would inflate an armed robber’s jail time from 2.4 years to 5.92 years.

To pay for the increased cost of incarcerating armed robbers, Odom, who is the House minority leader, proposes releasing from jail a range of “non-violent property offenders,” such as those convicted of forgery, criminal simulation, some vandalism charges and certain thefts.

He added that those released would not go unsupervised. “It would not get anybody a ‘get out of jail free’ card,” Odom told the Criminal Practice and Procedure Subcommittee.

Odom further stated that those released “would be moved into community corrections, which would free up some 440 cells that would be available for this most serious offense.”

“When you stick a gun in somebody’s face, you’re in graduate school, as far as crime goes,” he said.

Odom described an instance in which one of his constituents was held up at gunpoint in the middle of the day while the victim’s daughter was less than 50 feet away.

“(The offender) had just gotten out of prison after serving…only the minimum of two years, and then he went on a rampage where, over a three-day period, he committed a number of other armed robberies,” Odom said. “That man should have been in jail, should have been serving a longer period of time than the current law, the current 30 percent, that the law provides for.”

For those who would be released,“offenders are closely monitored, thus freeing up jail cells,” Odom said.

The bill “recognizes that we have a limited number of jail cells, and what this legislation will do is make sure the most violent individuals are occupying that,” he continued.

The companion bill in the state Senate, SB 3431, sponsored by Sen. Doug Henry, D-Nashville, has yet to be acted on in the Senate’s Judiciary Committee.