The Tennessee Star Report: Justin Owen from the Beacon Center Talks About Governor Lee’s Plan to Reform the Tennessee Criminal Justice System

In a specific discussion on Monday morning’s Tennessee Star Report with Steve Gill and Michael Patrick Leahy – broadcast on Nashville’s Talk Radio 98.3 and 1510 WLAC weekdays from 5:00 am to 8:00 am – host Steve Gill talked in depth with the Beacon Centers CEO, Justin Owen about the Beacon’s support of Bill Lee’s criminal justice reform proposal and the implications of offering non-violent criminals a chance to receive education and enter the workforce instead of returning back through the prison’s revolving doors.

The men ended the segment covering the aspect of vocational training reform and it’s implementations effect on Texas.

Gill: Justin Owen is the President and CEO of the Beacon Center and here to explain what is the rationale for the support that the Beacon Center is giving to, among other things the college for criminals plan that Governor Bill Lee is putting out. And Justin good to have you with us.

Owen: Good to be on Steve, thanks for inviting me on.

Gill: A lot of stuff on this issue. The Governor hadn’t put out a lot of details, they’ve not answered questions that we’ve submitted to them about how much it’s going to cost and those sort of things. Do you and the ACLU have more details about this plan than they’ve put out publicly?

Owen: Well concerning the cost, it’s in the press release that on the education side at least their spending ten million dollars to essentially retrofit our prisons. Give them the ability and the tools to provide college and technical education type opportunities that offer bachelor’s degree program that we did cover on Friday in the Tooney prison which is about one hour and a half west of here. And yes that’s an upward investment of ten million dollars, but I’ll tell ya, it costs two point two million dollars to house inmates across our state every single day. And if we can spend five days worth of housing inmates to ensure that when they come out of prison they actually have access to a good education, a good workforce opportunity, a good job and become productive tax paying citizens, rather than turning back to a life of crime then sign me up. Because that’s a good investment in my opinion.

Gill: If it produces those results it might make some sense although again ten million dollars making sure that Tennessee k through twelve students are actually learning reading and math because we’re seeing that in Tennessee their not. Forty-six percent of Tennessee high school graduates are having to take remedial work when they get to college. Another thirty-six percent or so are having to take remedial work in reading. You know would that ten million dollars be better spent making sure that we’re actually teaching honest decent law-abiding students in Tennessee first?

Owen responded to Gill’s question by stating that he hoped that Governor Lee would speak to defending educational choice in his speech tonight because the Beacon Center advocates that parents should have more control over their kid’s education. Gill asked whether Owen thought it was interesting that Lee has not since the primary discussed school choice and if he was concerned that this was all talk and no action by the Governor.

Owen: Well I hope the action comes today. I know you know it’s a weird situation for us because in the past years you hit the ground running in January and things start moving really fast. That anytime you have a new Governor that this is the latest State of the State I’ve ever been a part of. It’s usually at the end of January and so we’re really a month or so behind anyway. So I’m hopeful that he’ll announce some plans to address that issue today and then we’ll be off to the races in the legislature. So it’s not too little too late on any of this stuff the criminal justice stuff which he has continued to talk about has just been unveiled in the last couple of days.

Gill: One of the things about his plan that has received I guess the most concern on this prison reform issue is the college opportunities for those in our prisons. The Governor has made the point that thirty percent of those in our prison’s don’t have a high school degree and that getting them their GED, getting them their high school equivalency will help reduce the return rate to prison. Is the Beacon Center buying into those numbers?

Owen: Yeah I do believe it. Then the reason we’re actually involved in this is because of Texas. And Texas is as conservative as they come. And their think tank there in their public policy foundation actually teamed up with the ACLU which we don’t agree with on anything. If you’ve ever heard my conversations with Hedy Weinberg of the ACLU you’d love to be a fly on the wall in those conversations because we never agree. But in Texas, those two organizations came together like we have and said, “You know what? We’re having to, we’re faced with having to build three new prisons in Texas at a cost of two billion dollars to taxpayers. Let’s do something different.” And as a result of investing in you know health and substance abuse issues on the front end as a result investing in our entry opportunities expanding access to CTE and other educational opportunities for those who are coming out of prison. They were able to actually close a prison. And they don’t just do it like California where they throw everybody out on the street who are violent criminals. They focus on locking up people they’re scared of not just people they’re mad at. And for those people that are coming out getting more of an education on the back end so that they had access to good jobs. And as a result of closing those eight prisons, their crime rates have actually plummeted in Texas. So that is the best conservative case for reform and it was done because of very similar things that have been proposed by Governor Lee. It’s the reason President Trump endorsed the First Step Act and said, “You know what, we’re going to send two hundred million dollars providing better access to education and ct and vocational training to those in our federal prisons.” So if Texas can do it. If President Trump can do it. I believe that Governor Lee can do it in a conservative way as well.

Gill: Well, of course, you’ve got Bill Haslam and now Bill Lee wanting to expand it providing free college for everybody in Tennessee. And we aren’t seeing that that’s actually producing more college graduates at either the at community college or the four-year college level. I don’t have the figures you may not have them in front of you. What are the percentages of folks in our prisons in Tennessee or in Texas that are first timers versus these returners? Because one of the reasons you’re building all these new prisons is because of the new people committing crimes not just people coming back after they’ve done it the first time thr0ugh.

Owen described that our recitivism rates are at about forty-seven percent and half of all released criminals most likely are back in within three years. He stressed that the biggest driver of overcrowding because people aren’t rehabilitated therefore creating what he calls, the ‘revolving door.’ He added that Texas has seen positive results because they are making sure that ex-criminals are not re-offending. Gill stated that felonies imposed on people because they had a small amount of pot for themselves after a small sale were possible unnecessary felonies. He added that people that are not a risk or a danger to society are being put in prison for low level crimes which in turn ends up trapping people into a felony life. He was saddened for those that may have only been  nineteen years old when arrested making a nonviolent stupid mistake. Gill was concerned that some people were suffering from uncessesary ‘felonization.’

Owen: Absolutely. This is definitely a multi-year effort. And I think that that looking at how much of time are we giving someone for a crime that’s low level, non-violent, then we need to address that. That takes a couple of years in the legislature. It might look like a sentencing commission or something that you bring all these people together and really study and look at those sentencing laws and right size them. I think this initial approach of explaining mental health and substance abuse support is key for those who…you know someone who has a drug addiction throwing them in a jail cell doesn’t solve their problem. They may need to go to jail because of the crime they committed. But we need to make sure we treat that substance abuse problem as well so then again they don’t become part of that revolving door. But I do agree with you that long term the sentencing piece has to be part of this. And at least hoping the Governor’s office of administration as we’ve had these discussions. This is a multi-year comprehensive approach. Every step of the system is broken. We’re working on bail reform this year because half of the people in our local jails are sitting there pre-trial. And a bunch of those are for low level, non-violent misdemeanors that they just can’t afford bail. They’re just sitting there because they can’t cut a check for bail. So, if they’re low level, if they’re not a threat to public safety, let them get back out so they can go back to work so they don’t lose their jobs, so they don’t lose their cars, so they don’t get kicked out of their apartment, they don’t have family issues.

Gill: And again, the Beacon Center is looking at this from an economic standpoint. It’s you know look, it’s costing us money to keep them in jail when they could be out on the streets working and paying taxes. That’s an economic argument whether than a crime and punishment issue. Let me touch on a couple of other quick issues I had about this plan. One of the issues is to create more opportunities for expunging the records of these criminals. How does that help make us safe?

Owen: It’s just getting rid of the fees. So right now there’s already a list of crimes, mostly misdemeanors and a few low-level felonies in that list. That if you serve your time and go five years without committing another crime then you have the ability to go ask the courts to clear your record. The problem for a lot of people, especially poor people is that it costs money to do that. Right now it costs almost two hundred dollars just to apply to get your record expunged. The Governor’s not proposing in any way changing what crimes you can get your record expunged for and how long it takes any of that…

Gill: Just dealing with what it costs to get it done. (Inaudible talk)

The men ended the segment by discussing in specific the vocational education component of the current bill proposed by Governor Bill Lee. Owen described how men in prison, if productive and are working with access to the proposed provided programs will leave prison with the ability to be able to get a job and therefore be unlikely to turn back to a life of crime. Vocationally speaking, Gill was concerned that people see it as people in prison get a better deal than those that follow the law. Owen believes the program works in providing prisons the capacity to launch CTE so that the men coming out of prison can get jobs too. Owen stressed that employers are embracing that as they are looking for good skilled labor and that there is a need for opportunities to hire people out of prison. He added that it keeps those that are released into the community as safer citizens by addressing issues on the back end and that it produces a win-win situation.


Listen to both segments here:


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Tune in weekdays from 5:00 – 8:00 am to the Tennessee Star Report with Steve Gill and Michael Patrick Leahy on Talk Radio 98.3 FM WLAC 1510. Listen online at iHeart Radio.

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2 Thoughts to “The Tennessee Star Report: Justin Owen from the Beacon Center Talks About Governor Lee’s Plan to Reform the Tennessee Criminal Justice System”

  1. 83ragtop50

    So why don’t we just do away with all laws if those breaking the existing laws are given a free pass? I strongly disagree with the idea of giving pot smokers (and any other drug abusers) a pass because it will reduce the prison population. What has become of the the expectation of personal responsibility upon which the American rule of law was founded? Look around and observe what has happened to our communities because those that choose to behave badly are excused and left free to abuse law abiding citizens. Enough of the feel good mentality is enough already.

  2. 83ragtop50

    I cannot believe what Governor Lee is proposing. What requirements will be placed on those who would receive such education benefits ? Would they be required to actually perform some kind of work to pay for it? How about grade requirements? I am concerned that the proposed criminal justice reform is a code name for get out of jail free cards. Those incarcerated did not get there by being model citizens. My state rep and I disagreed strongly on this topic.