When the final gavel of the 107th General Assembly sounded in April, the Republican-dominated state legislature had addressed the contentious “Ag-Gag” bill and specified that guns could be allowed in parking lots and carried by teachers.
Through all the debate, one issue was scarcely addressed by the state legislature: overcrowding in state prisons. Gov. Bill Haslam mentioned the topic in his State of the State address, as he noted a large budget increase for the Tennessee Department of Correction.
But a local group known as the Tennessee Consultation on Criminal Justice is starting to stir up support through state legislators to bring the issue to the forefront. Money will likely be a key topic of discussion.
The TDOC budget has skyrocketed over the past three fiscal years. State spending on incarceration increased from $786 million in 2011-2012 to a recommended budget allocation of $929 million in 2013-2014. The most recent budget figure includes $908 million in state-allocated dollars.
The budget increases is mostly tied to operational costs in the state’s 14 prisons, as well as paying local governments to house state inmates in county jails. The latest TDOC bed space numbers show that 10 of the 14 state prisons have operated above 95 percent of their capacity on average since July 2012.
Furthermore, the state is projecting that $202 million of their $929 million budget will be paid out to local jails housing state inmates.
“I definitely think it’s high time we start dealing with it, and it’s high time that we look at not just asking for additional money to incarcerate more people, but is this really working?” said Jorin Haley, who is involved with the TCCJ.
“Is this how we want to spend our money, and what are the social outcomes of it?”
But another question remains: How receptive will Tennessee’s Republican supermajority, typically perceived as tough on crime, be to prison reform?
So far, Haley said she feels optimistic after her meetings with state legislators on both sides of the issue.
“Everybody I talked to was willing to help or get on board,” Haley said. “I left very encouraged because I felt like it wasn’t polarized. I felt like there was definitely a morale and a tone that was bipartisan. I never picked up that people [had] this hard-headed rigidity.”
A recent New York Times editorial by Richard Viguerie made the case that prison reform is ripe for being part of the conservative agenda.
“These three principles — public safety, compassion and controlled government spending — lie at the core of conservative philosophy,” Viguerie wrote. “Politically speaking, conservatives will have more credibility than liberals in addressing prison reform.”
A large portion of national prison reform policies include taking measures to address recidivism and repeat offenders, which often stem from the lack of re-entry support systems. The TCCJ is pushing measures to encourage Tennessee to study how other states have effectively tackled overcrowding.
Right on Crime, a conservative national prison reform group, cites Texas as a successful example of red-state prison reform. A 2007 study presented to Texas lawmakers showed a need for more than 17,000 new prison beds in the state at a cost that would have totaled billions of dollars.
Instead, the state committed tax dollars to residential and non-residential treatment programs for nonviolent offenders, as well as the hiring of 64 re-entry counselors across the system. The result has been a significant decrease in crime, according to Right on Crime.
Tennessee’s correction department is already completing a detailed study that would help predict prison populations. According to TDOC, the study will include scenarios for adjusting state laws, policies and parole practices.
A spokesman for Haslam said his office had just begun looking at topics for inclusion in the 2014 legislative agenda.
Rep. William Lamberth (R-Cottontown), a former district attorney from Sumner County, said he hopes to continue pushing new laws to help with public safety issues.
“We’re growing as a state. We have more people, and when you have more people, you’re going to have more people that commit crimes and get in trouble,” Lamberth said. “[We need to] work on getting to the root cause of why somebody is committing a crime so they don’t commit it again.”
In the most recent legislative session, Lamberth supported a law that allowed second-time DUI offenders to receive a restricted license for a year as long as there is an ignition interlock device in the car — rather than having offenders be immobilized with a complete license revocation.
“It keeps them as productive citizens and hopefully keeps them from falling into a hole where they recommit crimes over and over again,” Lamberth said.
Both TCCJ and Lamberth hope that larger, more widespread changes are implemented in everything from parole procedures to drug and treatment courts.
“I think the time is right,” Haley said. “This is a really expensive line item in the budget. If we don’t start taking a closer look at this, nobody is going to win from this.”
Andrea Zelinski contributed to this report.