Tennessee’s criminal justice program is getting an overhaul that’s intended to lessen the burden on the state’s prisons, and help prevent non-violent offenders from spending too long in prison and to help them stay out once they’ve been paroled.
That was a major legislative initiative of Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee this year. The first-term Republican worked with Sen. Ken Yager, the chairman of the Senate Republican Caucus, to carry the legislation to accomplish the reform.
Yager, who represents Scott County in the General Assembly, touted the virtues of the criminal reform legislation at a Scott County Chamber of Commerce monthly luncheon on Thursday, saying he was proud to carry the legislation for the governor.
The Kingston Republican said that Tennessee currently spends more than $1 billion per year to incarcerate 30,000 people.
“In the 10 years that I’ve been in the legislature, I’ve seen that number grow by over $200 million,” Yager said. “When I first came in it was about $800 million. Now it’s just over $1 billion, and there’s no end in sight.”
There are about 21,000 criminal offenders in Tennessee’s prisons, and another 9,000 that are housed by the TN Dept. of Corrections in county jails across the state. Yager said that about 40% of them are in prison for low-level, non-violent crimes.
“Let me hasten to say, bad people need to be in jail,” Yager said. “I’m not saying they don’t. What I am saying is we need to take a look at our criminal justice system to see if we can reach these people and get them back out on the streets.”
Yager said that 5% of Tennessee’s prisoners are “lifers” who will never be free. The remaining 95% will be released at some point. But, he said, 51% of those will wind up back in prison within three years.
“It’s unfortunate and tragic,” he said. “We have the highest recidivism rate in the Southeast and one of the highest in the nation. What’s going on? What’s causing this to happen? We’ve taken a great look at that.”
Yager said the legislation he carried will create significant changes to Tennessee’s parole system. One of the biggest changes will be mandated intervention once offenders are paroled.
“If you’ve been in jail for 14 years, you’ve lost total contact with the outside world,” Yager said. “It’s going to be hard for you to adjust. You’re not going to get anything from the state of Tennessee except the clothes on your back. They walk you to the door, the door slams shut behind you, and, boom, you’re on your own. A few folks have families that will be there waiting on them, and we have some non-profits that work valiantly to help these guys. But most of those people come out with absolutely no support.”
Yager’s legislation requires that a state-appointed advocate stay with a new parolee for a certain period of time, and check up with them at home and at work.
“It’s to make sure somebody is there with you, to help you — not to in any type of way harass you, but a way to help you get back in society so you won’t end up back in prison in three years,” he said.
Another change implemented by the legislation requires that the state’s parole board grant parole more leniently.
“The parole board has become very conservative in dispatching its duties,” Yager said. “We’ve created a presumption to where, unless there’s a good reason to the contrary, you’re entitled to parole on a day that is determined the day you’re sentenced in court. A lot of folks are being kept in prison after that parole date without good reason.”
Yager acknowledged that he expected the legislation to be controversial, but it wasn’t. “We’ve gotten really good support,” he said.
Another aspect of the legislation gets Tennessee’s community colleges and the Tennessee College of Applied Technology involved with helping prepare inmates for life after prison. Yager said he approached Lee with the suggestion a year ago, and the governor endorsed it.
“We want to let them into the prisons more, where you can go to school and get a certificate from TCAT or a degree from the local community college (while you’re in jail),” Yager said. The state will accomplish that by giving counties a stipend for participating in the program. Currently, counties get $37 per day for each state inmate that is housed in the local jail. If they participate in the program to reintroduce those inmates to the work force through vocational school or college, the state will pay $6 extra per day.
“Bad people belong in jail,” Yager said, “there’s no dispute about that. But the taxpayers of Tennessee just can’t afford to keep this up at this rate of growth.”