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.
Select Tennessee prisoners will now receive COVID-19 vaccinations, following a report on officials’ apparent hesitancy to prioritize them initially. The state progressed to Phase 1C of its vaccination plan earlier this week, which extends vaccines to those prisoners who are 65 and older or have eligible health conditions. Others now eligible to receive the vaccine are individuals 16 years old and older that have diabetes, Down syndrome, or any progressive neuromuscular diseases, or live in households with pregnant women.
The announcement to vaccinate these prisoners came shortly after it was discovered that officials determining the order of vaccine priority groups were hesitant to prioritize prisoners due to the optics of placing them ahead of other citizens. The Pandemic Vaccine Planning Stakeholder group, an advisory panel that assists in vaccine rollout decisions and communication with citizens across the state, reportedly stated during one of its meetings that prioritizing prisoners could prove a public relations “nightmare” and, possibly, a state liability. The Associated Press discovered these remarks in an open records request for the group’s meeting notes late last week.
More than 100,000 state and federal prisoners were released from custody between March and June as the coronavirus spread nationwide, according to analysis from a criminal justice organization.
The overall U.S. prison population declined by 8% over the course of those four months compared to the 2.2% decrease that occurred in the entirety of 2019, according to data compiled by The Marshall Project and The Associated Press. The decrease was mostly a result of prisons not accepting individuals from county jails to stop the virus from spreading and court closures, although some facilities did elect to release some prisoners early, The AP reported.