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ICYMI: Tennessee Needs a Criminal Justice System that is Fairer and More Effective

Mar 14, 2019 by AFP

Americans for Prosperity-Tennessee State Director Tori Venable | The Tennessean 

Tennessee is falling behind.

Over the past dozen years, more than 30 states have enacted bipartisan reforms to promote public safety, hold wrongdoers accountable and extend a second chance to the formerly incarcerated who are ready to contribute positively to their local communities.

These states — which include neighbors such as Georgia and states as disparate as Pennsylvania, Iowa and Texas — have reduced their prison populations and seen their crime rates drop.

Following the lead of these states, Washington bridged its partisan divide by passing the First Step Act — legislation that expands rehabilitation programs in federal prisons, shortens mandatory minimum sentences for certain nonviolent offenders and restores human dignity to those behind bars.

Signed into law by President Donald Trump, the First Step Act is already making a difference in the lives of many, including Matthew Charles, a Nashville resident who recently became one of the first federal prisoners released under the new law. After being convicted of drug trafficking charges in 1996, Charles took college courses, became a law clerk and became a mentor to other prisoners.

Despite all of these positive developments, Tennessee is failing to keep pace. According to a recent study, in 2015, Tennessee taxpayers spent $23,468 per inmate, for a total cost of $723,680,760. That’s money that isn’t being spent to educate our kids or grow the economy.

But cost is not the only issue. According to the Tennessee Department of Correction, around half of all felony inmates are reincarcerated within three years of their release. And although we did see a slight decrease in our state’s recidivism rate from 2010 to 2016, it’s clear that we are not doing enough to equip the formerly incarcerated to succeed upon being released.

Fortunately, Gov. Bill Lee has made it clear that criminal justice reform is a priority for his administration. The new governor has a long track record working on this issue, including his involvement with a prison ministry in Nashville. And based on the flurry of bills being introduced, it’s clear that Lee has some company in the legislature to work on this issue.

Action is especially needed in Tennessee following the release of a new report developed by my organization, Project Return and Think Tennessee that found the Volunteer State has some of the harshest laws on the books preventing people with a felony conviction from voting.

Holding wrongdoers accountable and protecting public safety is not incompatible with a criminal justice system that is fairer, more just and does a better job rehabilitating people in prison. Other states are proving both are possible. Now it’s Tennessee’s turn.

Tori Venable is Tennessee state director at Americans for Prosperity

Click HERE to read the full op-ed.