The Department of Correction is in trouble. State prisons are packed, the inmates who can’t fit in are filling up local jails, and the system for transitioning people out is losing credibility.
But policy makers back on Capitol Hill have bigger appetites to stiffen punishments for criminals than to tackle the troubled corrections system that manages the people lawmakers want thrown in there.
“Although it makes us feel good and it is an absolute necessity to lock people up, we’re losing the battle because we’re continuing to build more jails,” said Tony Shipley, a Kingsport Republican who pushes for tougher sentencing laws. “All we’re doing is perpetuating the problem and kicking the can down the road.”
The state’s 14 prisons are collectively at 98 percent capacity, with an overflow of about 5,000 inmates serving some, if not all, of their time at local jails while they wait for a prison bed to open up, according to the Department of Correction.
Gov. Bill Haslam noted the problem during his State of the State address last week. A recent study found that more than 600 violent crimes are committed per 100,000 people in Tennessee, including murder, rape, robbery and aggravated assault. The figure is second only to Washington, D.C., with more than 1,200 crimes per 100,000 people, according to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report.
Among other things, a better education system will help chip away at the problem, Haslam said, but in the meantime, he promised more money to the corrections system. His $32.7 billion budget plan released last week includes spending more than $120 million new dollars to house inmates. That would help bring the department’s budget more than $900 million next year.
The governor also wants to spend $30.2 million to expand the not-yet-reopened Bledsoe Correctional Complex — formerly Southeastern Tennessee Regional Correctional Facility — in Pikeville, which will begin accepting some 1,500 inmates this spring. The two-year expansion project would add another 512 beds.
In the meantime, Haslam wants to divvy out nearly $42 million in checks to local jails for housing more state inmates this year than the state expected, plus another $48 million for the inmates who won’t fit next year.
The number of state felons housed in county jails is on the uptick. Although last year an average of 4,825 inmates were in local jails at any one time, that tally was as low as 1,974 in 2006. The high numbers of state inmates are pushing more than 30 local prisons beyond capacity, some by more than 200 percent.
Systemwide, the total felon population has grown about 12 percent since 2005, according to agency statistics. Reasons for the increase vary, but that hasn’t slowed policy makers or enforcers from wanting to beef up laws on criminals, mostly violent ones.
Last year, Haslam made a priority of pushing new laws that would increase prison time for people repeatedly convicted of domestic violence, felons who illegally possess a gun and people engaged in gang crimes.
District attorneys say it’s their priority this year to toughen sentences on other serious crimes, like aggravated child neglect and attempted first-degree murder. They also want to boost the minimum amount of required time an inmate serves before becoming eligible for parole. Some classes of felonies require 85 percent of the sentence be served, while others require convicts serve 30 percent.
Lawmakers have picked at taking pressure off prisons over the last few years. In 2010, they agreed first-time offenders of nonviolent property crimes under $1,000 should skip prison time in favor of alternative sentencing, like parole or community corrections.
But in the past two years, lawmakers have also introduced more than 60 bills to strengthen or edit the state’s sentencing guidelines, most seeking longer time behind bars. For example, the newly adopted “Kimberly’s Law” requires people convicted of aggravated rape to serve 100 percent of their sentence.
While longer prison sentences put pressure on the Department of Correction, the agency that would like to see judges assign a higher number of lesser criminals to probation or parole.
A recent audit discovered serious flaws in the system last year. Auditors found probation or parole officers checking in on more than 80 convicts who had been dead for as long as 19 years, reporting them as alive and well. The report also found that more than 80 percent of GPS-monitored offenders’ alarms, such as those strapped to convicted sex offenders, “appeared unmonitored.”
While state officials have shifted many of those oversight duties to the Department of Correction, some lawmakers are looking at revamping the state’s Board of Parole, partially due to additional audit findings that supervisors reviewed only half of offender files required.
As the department juggles funds inmates, and its image for transitioning out inmates, there’s a bigger question lawmakers who drive sentencing policies need to consider, said Commissioner of Finance and Administration Mark Emkes.
“The big philosophical question that has to be addressed by the legislature is, do we have our sentencing where it needs to be, and if we do, then maybe we need more jails,” he said. “And if that sentencing isn’t right, then maybe we don’t need as many jails.”