Lee's Criminal Justice Investment Task Force releases policy recommendations for public safety, inmate treatment and more

In this April 17, 2019, file photo, Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee takes part in a discussion on state-level criminal justice reform in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey, File)

NASHVILLE - Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee's criminal justice task force on Thursday released a package of "data-driven policy recommendations" with proposals aimed at improving public safety, increasing support for prisoners' reentry into society, reducing recidivism and making communities safer.

"My administration is committed to addressing public safety and reentry throughout Tennessee, and I'm grateful to have the support of the members of this Task Force," Lee said. "Dedicated leaders from across our state have come together to address this important issue, and I look forward to reviewing their recommendations."

The Criminal Justice Investment Task Force made 23 specific recommendations. They include:

* Strengthening responses to individuals with behavioral health needs

* Equalizing treatment of those housed in local jails with those housed in state prisons

* "Tailoring" the state's response to different types of offenses

* Improving the efficiency and effectiveness of community supervision

* Minimizing barriers to successful reentry

Despite Tennessee jailing more people and spending more than $1 billion annually on corrections, Tennessee has the fourth highest violent crime rate in the nation. And many ex-convicts are going on to get into trouble after being released, resulting in a high recidivism rate, with nearly half of former prisoners getting rearrested within three years of release from custody.

Lee has taken a personal interest in changes, having worked with prisoners as a volunteer mentor in a faith-based setting before running for public office last year.

In partnership with Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Jeff Bivins, Lt. Gov. Randy McNally and House Speaker-Designate Cameron Sexton, the governor asked task force members for solutions with goals to strengthen public safety through "smarter" and more "deliberate" policies grounded in the state's actual corrections data.

The five-month study of Tennessee's sentencing and corrections system, which involved analyzing extensive state data, evaluating innovative policies and programs, also reviewed research on what actually works to reduce recidivism while developing comprehensive recommendations.

Figures show that over the past decade, Tennessee's incarceration rate has risen to 10 percent above the national average, and the Lee administration says communities are no safer for it.

"This is an issue that is extremely important to our state, and I look forward to the work ahead so we can continue to improve overall safety and keep all Tennesseans safe," said House Majority Leader William Lamberth.

The Task Force represents diverse perspectives from across the criminal justice system. The list included prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges, legislators, law enforcement, state agency directors, justice-involved individuals and advocates for crime victims.

Bivins commended task force members for developing "this strong package of recommendations. Today marks an important step in the ongoing effort to improve outcomes in Tennessee's criminal justice system, and I look forward to the continuation of this work during the upcoming legislative session and beyond."

State Correction Commissioner Tony Parker said, "it's clear we cannot incarcerate our way out of the issues facing Tennessee's criminal justice system: high recidivism, soaring costs, and a shortage of behavioral health services in the community."

Task Force recommendations include increasing access to sentencing alternatives as well as ensuring that everyone who is released from prison or jail has a period of supervision to improve reentry success.

Other recommendations include streamlining the parole process for individuals sentenced for nonviolent offenses, increasing access to post-secondary education and training opportunities for incarcerated individuals. It calls for improving the early detection of behavioral health needs to divert individuals who would be better served in the community.

The task force also recommends launching a comprehensive review of the state's sentencing code during the 2021 legislative session, establishing earned compliance credits for those on community supervision and reducing time on probation.

"This undertaking has shown that we need to do a better job of separating those we are mad at from those we are afraid of in our criminal justice system," said House Judiciary Committee Chairman Michael Curcio, R-Dickson.

Contact Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.