Cook: Let's send Governor Bill Haslam to Taft Youth Center

Cook: Let's send Governor Bill Haslam to Taft Youth Center

February 27th, 2012 by David Cook in Opinion Columns

Just ask Drew Lindsey.

"I'd still be out on the streets. Selling drugs. Robbing people," he said.

Before you learn about Lindsey's past, let's pause for a little math. According to the Tennessee Department of Correction, it costs $23,000 to incarcerate someone each year in Tennessee, and the average sentence for a criminal with a primary drug offense is six years.

So jailing Lindsey for selling drugs would cost about $138,000.

If along the way he shoots someone - or a bullet finds him - add in an additional $50,000, which is the estimated cost of life-long care for a gunshot victim.

Still got room on your paper? Because we still need to multiply in the emotional and psychological violence inflicted on any innocent victim. A family that gets caught up in some drug transaction gone sour. Anyone that gets robbed. Or harmed.

How do you put a price tag on feeling safe?

How much do we value a place that can deter Lindsey from such violence?

Today, Lindsey lives in Lewisburg. He adores his 2-year-old daughter, is interviewing for a factory job and going to college to become a barber. No more drugs, no more robberies.

How'd it happen?

In 2010, after being arrested for aggravated robbery, he went to Taft Youth Center in Bledsoe County.

It's the one place Gov. Bill Haslam plans on closing.

"They're shutting down the wrong facility," Lindsey said.

At Taft, he found mentors, earned his diploma, graduated from parenting class, obtained landscaping and welding certification and joined a church.

The officials at Taft "will go out of their way to make sure you have what you need to do good and be successful in life. I know that for a fact," he said.

Taft has the lowest recidivism rate - 3 percent - among all state youth centers. It houses 86 students. Rep. Jim Cobb, R-Spring City, calls them "the meanest of the mean."

So if Taft transforms 83 out of 86 Lindsey-like lives away from violence and back toward wholeness, why in the name of Buford Pusser would Haslam want to shut it down?

"Government cannot always be efficient," said Cobb. "It is for people who want help, need help and deserve help. It's also for the protection and health and safety of the general public. It's not about putting a dollar value."

I believe what we're seeing is the privatization of our juvenile justice system. The Corrections Corporation of America - a billion-dollar private prison corporation - is based in Nashville and has donated to Haslam's campaign.

While Haslam was running for governor, CCA President and CEO Damon Hininger donated $2,000 to his campaign, while CCA itself made the maximum donation: $7,500.

CCA makes no money off Taft, but would if it were closed and a private facility opened.

There's still a chance. When the budget comes before the Legislature later this spring, Cobb hopes to have enough bipartisan support to include funding to keep Taft open.

"Minority Leader Mike Turner told me, 'If you deliver the Republicans then I'll deliver 100 percent of Democrats against taking Taft out of the budget,'" Cobb said. "We've got a 50-50 chance."

How much of a chance do Taft employees have?

"They've got them over a barrel," said Kaylon Luttrell, who recently retired from Taft after nearly 27 years as a case manager. "Most of the people there either lumber or cattle or cut grass on the side. They have to work two jobs to provide for their families."

Luttrell said her former co-workers are heroic, helping to transform kids who have "never had a chance from Day One."

"Basically, you're kind of like their parents," she said. "It is not just a job. We don't go there for the pay. It's a calling."

Like Robert Worthington, the longtime coach and mentor at Taft. Before we hung up, I asked Lindsey if he wanted to say anything else about Taft. He paused, as if looking back toward a place far away, and two words came from his mouth: Coach Worthington.

"Coach is the biggest motivator in Taft. He doesn't want to see anybody do bad," Lindsey said. "He's hard on you because he knows you can do better. He wants to see you do better."

Sounds like Haslam could use some time with Coach Worthington.

David Cook can be reached at davidcook@blumail.org.