Lee’s Criminal Justice Reform Focuses on Re-Entry, Imprisonment Alternatives

Bill Lee
by John Styf


Gov. Bill Lee has promised criminal justice reform in Tennessee, and several of his proposed bills that are set to move forward in coming weeks could have a significant effect on those in the state’s prison system.

“I’ve been thinking about it for 20 years,” Lee said recently during a roundtable he held on the subject last week. “Now, we’re in spot in Tennessee to really make substantive change.”

Many of the changes proposed in the bills and in Lee’s amended budget aim to reduce the prison population while focusing on re-entry for nonviolent offenders.

The Reentry Success Act – House Bill 785/Senate Bill 768 – would create a mandatory supervision program for those released from prison while also creating an assumption that a prisoner will be released when the parole date is reached.

The program is budgeted to cost the state $20 million a year but also is estimated to save $1.6 million in the first year and $74 million annually over the next 10 years by housing fewer prisoners.

“To conservatives in the legislature, I’d say, this is the smart way to deal with crime,” Pat Nolan, who started the Nolan Center for Justice, said during the roundtable. “And by the savings from reducing the prison population intelligently, you can fund other programs that help prepare the inmates while they’re inside to be better neighbors when they get out.”

HB 785 is scheduled to be discussed Thursday on the House floor, and SB 768 is scheduled for a hearing Tuesday in the Senate Finance, Ways and Means Committee.

Lee’s amended budget proposal included funding for these bills and several programs related to them, including Men of Valor ($499,500), Next Door, Inc. ($400,000) and Lipscomb correctional higher education ($121,100).

Men of Valor is a faith-based nonprofit with the goal of having prisoners become believers and “equip them to re-enter society as men of integrity.” Next Door provides addiction services to women in crisis, and Lipscomb provides a LIFE program where traditional students learn beside prisoners from the Tennessee Prison for Women.

“I got involved in the subject of criminal justice reform because I got involved in a prison ministry, called Men of Valor, that many of you’ve heard me talk about,” Lee said. “Worked with re-entry, with mentoring men coming out of prison, employed formerly incarcerated individuals. I really saw firsthand beginning 20 years ago the tension and the push and pull between retribution and rehabilitation. I also saw what I thought was a system that wasn’t really working for anybody. It wasn’t working well for the victims. It wasn’t working well for those that were incarcerated.”

Another part of Lee’s plan, a community corrections bill that would look for alternatives to imprisonment, also is scheduled to be discussed Thursday on the House floor and in the Senate Finance, Ways and Means Committee on Tuesday.

That legislation, House Bill 784 and Senate Bill 767, is estimated in Lee’s budget to save the state $9 million annually while keeping people out of prison and putting them in community-based alternative programs.

House bill co-sponsor Michael Curcio, R-Dickson, said that the two bills took into account victims’ rights groups’ opinions from a roundtable conducted during the process of creating the bills.

Curcio said HB 784’s goal is to help those normally sent to jail after mental health or substance abuse issues by giving them the help they need to prevent them from returning to jail.

Rep. Karen Camper, D-Memphis, said the cost savings could be used for more programs.

“We could invest more in people who could have more wraparound services versus the savings just going back into the general fund,” Camper said.

Tennessee District Attorneys General Conference President Amy Weirich said the group generally is supportive of the bills’ goals but voiced concern over some of the sentencing requirement changes that limit district attorneys from making their own decisions on whether prison or treatment are the best options for a defendant.

Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry commended Lee’s plan, saying similar programs have worked in Texas.

“You can call me a lot of things, which I have been called a lot of things in my political life, but soft on crime is not one of them,” Perry said. “And in Texas, we believe in dispensing justice. But there’s nothing just when the system is broken in the sense of you’re either putting people in prison that don’t deserve to be there. And my hat’s really off to you from the standpoint of your Republican members and, for that matter, your Democrat members of the Tennessee Legislature, can go home to their constituents and say, ‘We were really smart on crime.’ ”

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John Styf contributes to The Center Square.











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5 Thoughts to “Lee’s Criminal Justice Reform Focuses on Re-Entry, Imprisonment Alternatives”

  1. Jay

    Do the crime do the time. That simple.

  2. Large numbers of Democrat supporting Criminals are fleeing the problems and environment they created in NY, NJ, Illinois,California etc and bringing their skilsl to fresh ground in Tennessee, along with a huge number of criminals and Drug Cartel members within the flood of Illegal, from around the world. Gov Lee should do as we want, prohibit any Illegals being brought into the state. Make E Verify law for Employers of Less than 50, that is all Employers and a policyy if you do no have a job waiting for you or have on in 30 days leave the state, to new and tax on new new arrivals. There are far too many Tennesseans who need and want jobs to allow in fleeing fleeing felons, Illegals, and Democrat Socialists/Communist anti America Change Subversives and Global Corporations who censer Honorable Citizens/Patriots such as Facebook! Tennesseans First/ Americans First

  3. Dave Vance

    I wonder how many from the “Men of Valor” program work for the Lee Company? Wonder if any work on his ranch? When it’s all said and done this will be a “soft on crime” bill.

  4. 83ragtop50

    Mr. Lee is out of touch with reality when it comes to criminals. If punishment were actually still punishment I believe that more of the criminals would get the message to straighten up. Revolving door prisons have never work for the good of the law abiding citizens.

    Mr. Lee is reportedly a good hearted man but he is obviously not a good governor. One and done, Mr. Lee.

  5. JRin

    If honest poor folks want the same benefits, they’ll be forced to commit felonies in order to qualify for them.