Tennessee Can Lead On Criminal Justice Reform

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Tennessee has found itself in the national spotlight a few times during this most recent legislative session, and not always in a positive light. It doesn’t have to be like this. In a state that is home to a mature state public defender conference (established in 1992), the third oldest public defender office in the nation (this one) and one of the oldest privately-run state prisons (Hamilton County), we should be looking to lead again as we face the future of crime and punishment.

The need for reform is obvious and gaining in its media coverage. Noting that the United States imprisons 760 of its citizens per 100,000, Fareed Zakaria had this to say in Time magazine last week: “We are creating a vast prisoner underclass in this country at huge expense, increasingly unable to function in normal society, all in the name of a war we have already lost.” 

Tennessee is no different, incarcerating 425 of its citizens per 100,000; Tennessee is 25th of the 50 states and ahead of every other country in the world except for the U.S. and Russia in terms of number of citizens imprisoned per capita.

Michelle Alexander’s oft-cited The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness is a New York Times bestseller and has resulted in broad attention to the racial implications of America’s incarceration policies over the past three decades. Those implications are readily apparent in Shelby County and Davidson County, Tennessee’s two largest counties.

Popular media is doing its part to spark conversation about reform, and much of the difficult policy work has already been done, too. For instance, tough-on-crime Texas has slowed prison population growth and reduced crime with new policies. It has closed prisons and instead spends hundreds of millions of dollars on successful rehabilitation and transition programs.

Best of all, successful reforms like these are the work of lawmakers from both parties. Reducing crime, saving taxpayer money and rehabilitating criminals are compatible goals with any political platform. In fact, crime policy reform has made for some strange bedfellows as noted in Newsweek recently.

So, as the 107th General Assembly of Tennessee draws to a close, let’s look forward to next year. Let’s put Tennessee in the news for the right reasons, starting with progressive, cost-saving and bipartisan criminal justice reform legislation!

Josh Spickler is an attorney and the Director of the Defender's Resource Network at the Shelby County Public Defender's Office in Memphis, Tennessee.

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