Gov. Bill Lee Announces Criminal Justice Reform Proposal, May Include Free College Education for Felons in Prison

“Free” college education is all the rage, and now it appears that felons are joining in as Gov. Bill Lee proposes to use taxpayers’ money to pay their way to a degree.

Lee’s plan could join other “free” education programs. In December Metro Nashville announced a program to spend millions per year offering “free” college to select students, building on similar programs like Tennessee Promise and Tennessee Reconnect.

Lee on Thursday announced a number of changes to the criminal justice system leading up to his State of the State address on Monday. A press release on his plan is here.

“We must significantly improve public safety in our state and I believe that starts with our criminal justice system,” Lee said in the press release. “We will focus on helping individuals to ensure there is a pathway to a productive life beyond crime and ultimately make our state a safer place.”

Laine Arnold, Lee’s press secretary, did not reply to questions asking these questions:

  • What is the total cost to implement the criminal justice reforms?
  • Will the inmates pay anything?
  • How much will taxpayers pay for the bachelor’s degree program at Turney Center Industrial Complex and high school education?

Lee’s initiative includes supplementing mental health efforts by expanding the Recovery Court System; eliminating the state’s $180 fee to expunge records; and expanding higher education programming.

The Recovery Court System provides supervision, treatment, and sanctions and incentives for substance abuse offenders. An extra $1.7 million will add 20 percent capacity to serve 500 more inmates per year. Lee estimates that would save the state over $20,000 per inmate from “recovered correction costs each year.”

Lee also wants to spend $10.5 million over three years on a partnership with the Tennessee Higher Education Commission to provide eight state facilities with the ability to offer Career and Technical Education (CTE) credentials in fields like computer information technology and building construction.

Funding is also planned for inmates to receive equivalent high school educations and participate in Turney Center Industrial Complex’s bachelor’s degree program.

Located in Hickman County,”Turney Center Industrial Complex (TCIX) is a time-building prison with emphasis on industry. The security designation is close and the majority of beds are medium security, ” according to its website.

Currently, TCIX says the following programs are available to felons incarcerated there:

Academic programs available at the prison include adult basic education and Nashville State Community College courses. Vocational programs include cosmetology, cabinet making and mill work, industrial maintenance, landscaping, vocational office education, Pro-Social Life Skills and Career Management for Success. TRICOR industry programs include wood and metal specialties. Offenders are also involved in support jobs at the prison. TCIX also has a dog training program.


Tennessee Star Political Editor Steve Gill noted that Governor Lee has talked about criminal justice reform being a priority during his campaign and since Election Day, but the specific details of his “college for criminals” plan deserves careful scrutiny.

“The recent THEC Report indicates that our public schools across the state are generally doing a poor job of preparing graduates from our high schools for college work, with high percentages requiring remedial work in math and reading”, Gill said. “Voters and legislators should demand results from the hundreds of millions of dollars we are spending to educate law abiding students before we rush to spend millions more on those who have failed to take advantage of taxpayer-paid education in the past and have chosen to commit crimes requiring their incarceration.”

“Reducing recidivism should be a high priority for our corrections system, but we should avoid rewarding bad behavior while school kids exhibiting good behavior remain under-funded, under-educated, and lacking the vocational skills the Governor seeks to provide to those in our prisons and jails.”

“His expungement plan should open a serious discussion about whether a justice system producing so many permanent felony records is a fair and just system in the long run or not. We can be tough on crime yet still leave a path to redemption for non-violent felons, particularly young and non-repeat offenders. An expungement policy that simply hides records rather than clearing records may actually fall short of the proper way to enact serious criminal justice reform,” Gill added. “That is a discussion that should probably take place over a longer period than the 60 days or so before the legislature plans to adjourn,” Gill concluded.

Gov. Lee pointed to educational data for current inmates to bolster the case for his proposals.

“More than 30 percent of inmates in Tennessee do not have high school education equivalency,” said Lee in the announcement of his criminal justice reform proposals. “By offering quality education programming, inmates have a 43 percent lower chance of re-entering prison than those who do not receive this education.”

Lee’s efforts won praise from a Beacon Center of Tennessee-ACLU coalition named the Tennessee Coalition for Sensible Justice.

“We applaud Gov. Lee on his commitment to reforming our criminal justice system, Justin Owen, CEO of Beacon Impact and Beacon Center, said in a press release. “These thoughtful reforms will allow those leaving prison to become productive members of society, make our communities safer, and the up-front investments will ultimately save taxpayer money. Our coalition looks forward to standing side-by-side with Gov. Lee to bring these reforms to fruition.”

David Connor, executive director of the Tennessee County Services Association, which represents elected officials, said, “Gov. Lee is wisely expanding programs that have significant return on investment.”

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Jason M. Reynolds has more than 20 years’ experience as a journalist at outlets of all sizes.










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6 Thoughts to “Gov. Bill Lee Announces Criminal Justice Reform Proposal, May Include Free College Education for Felons in Prison”

  1. Wolf Woman

    Really Gov. Lee! That’s the ticket, ‘college for criminals?’ Commit a crime and get a free college education. Work and study hard, obey your parents and society’s rules and you have to pay for your higher education.

    How about teaching the inmates the Ten Commandments, the Golden Rule, ethics to give them a degree in human morals and conduct so they can be a positive force for our society?

  2. Carrie Miller

    How much more are we going to GIVE criminals? When does jail and prison stop being a free ride when it should be a consequence of breaking the law? They deserve food, hot showers, and clean clothes. Education, cable tv, computers, and luxury items that tax payers have to pay for should not be apart of the jail and prison system. Where does it stop?

  3. not2day

    Why are you “rewarding” criminals with a free college education? How about we make incarceration so dreaded that individuals think twice before committing any crime. Chain gang comes to mind. Stop coddling criminals.
    Governor, if you are so hell-bent on giving away money, use YOUR money and not the taxpayer’s. The taxpayer has worked for his money and should not have to fund programs that reward crooks.
    If you really want to help Tennesseans, FIX THE DAMN ROADS/HIGHWAYS.

  4. Allan Tortorice

    Let me see if I understand. If I commit a serious crime in Tennessee, I can get free college tuition, but if I follow our laws, I have to pay my own way. Do I have that correct? If so, Bill Lee is yet another ass who can’t be trusted to do what his constituents want.

    I obviously made a mistake voting for Lee and will NOT do so again.

    1. 83ragtop50

      Yep. This is the same Bill Lee that I continually warned my friends of. He leads with a bleeding heart and our tax dollars. He sounds like he would fit better in D.C.

      When can we vote him out?

  5. 83ragtop50

    Not where I want to spend my tax dollars.