State's incarceration rate is 10% above U.S. average; jailings in East Tennessee drive increase

Looking down a prison cell block at bars. Incarceration, jail and prison. / Getty Images/iStockphoto/Photos597

NASHVILLE - In a state where the prison and jail population has quadrupled over a nearly four-decade period, Tennessee's incarceration rate now stands 10% higher than the national average, according to a new report.

And while actual admissions to the Tennessee Department of Correction declined 14% over the past decade, a major driver of the increase is longer average sentences - excluding life sentences and death row inmates - which had risen by 11% to 58 months by fiscal year 2018.

The findings are part of a study conducted by the nonprofit Community Resources for Justice on behalf of Gov. Bill Lee, a Republican who is making criminal justice issues a priority in his first term.

Officials from Community Resources for Justice, which obtains its funding from the U.S. Department of Justice, presented the report's findings Thursday at the first public meeting of Lee's Tennessee Criminal Justice Reinvestment Task Force.

According to the report, part of what's driving the numbers as well as state incarceration costs now totaling $1.06 billion annually aren't people convicted of violent crimes against others. They account for just 1 in 4 people in state prisons or local jails. Rather, it's people sentenced for offenses like property crimes, which accounted for 33% among those incarcerated for felonies.

Those entering jail or prison for violating conditions of parole or probation in community supervision programs - along with those committing new offenses while on such programs - accounted for 39% of prison admissions in FY 2018, according to the report.

Another striking finding was that while felony rates of prison incarceration overall dropped in Middle and West Tennessee from Fiscal Year 2009 through FY 2018, jailings in East Tennessee more than made up the difference. Admissions from East Tennessee counties grew 11%.

And in yet another finding, the rate of statewide female admissions climbed 12% in a decade, going from 1,995 in 2009 to 2,240 in 2018.

During his 2018 campaign for governor, Lee frequently cited his longtime involvement in prison ministries like the faith-based Men of Valor - he served as a mentor - noting their recidivism rates are better than state or national averages.

At Thursday's meeting, Community Resources for Justice officials cited what they called the "Iron Law" of prison population growth. The number of admissions to a system plus the time served equals the population.

Task Force members include Rep. Yusuf Hakeem, D-Chattanooga, a former state parole board member; Hamilton County General Sessions Court Judge Alexander McVeagh; and Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Mike Bell, R-Riceville. They and other group members will meet over two years, developing legislative and budgetary recommendations to Lee's administration.

Lee hopes for some recommendations to push during the upcoming 2020 legislative session.

One area Lee cited in his executive order creating the task force is his desire to tackle the politically sensitive issue of sentencing. The last time that occurred was 30 years ago under then-Gov. Ned McWherter. During that time, there was a complete overhaul, which came as the state sought to build and dig its way out of a decadeslong history of prison neglect and unconstitutional overcrowding that had landed Tennessee government under control of a federally appointed master.

Unlike the 1989 overhaul, Lee's directive to task force members says they should also look to programs that successfully help offenders and prepare them to re-enter society.

The governor wants task force members to recommend educational training and technical job training, as well as outline how to address mental health and substance abuse while providing offenders' families and communities with tools to ease re-entry.

After Thursday's meeting, Hakeem said task force members should follow the Community Resources for Justice's "data" because "history says we need to do something different."

"I see a good opportunity for things to happen so far as criminal justice reform," Hakeem noted. With regard to any sentencing reform initiatives, Hakeem said: "We're going to be able to need to show that you can deal with rehabilitation without excessive or longer sentences."

That means demonstrating it "makes a difference to make these people productive rather than the long-term sentences," he added.

Bell said he believes the stiffer sentences coming out of East Tennessee are "directly to the opioid crisis being centered in Appalachia." That includes the increase in women being sentenced, he added.

Bell said he hopes to get a "better look at the numbers."

"I've reached no conclusions yet," Bell said, who added he is keeping an open mind.

McVeagh, who presides over General Sessions' drug court which deals with people convicted of misdemeanors, later said the program is already enjoying "some incredible success rates."

The misdemeanor program is a local follow to Hamilton County Criminal County Judge Tom Greenholtz's drug court for felons and allows courts to step in "a little bit earlier to address some of these statistics that we see," McVeagh said.

During the presentation, Shelby County District Attorney Amy Weirich asked whether they would provide any information from victims' perspectives. Community Resources for Justice staff said they would.

"We all know there's always room to improve the system," Weirich said afterward. "But we cannot do it without talking the victims and about remembering behind every one of these crimes there's a victim."

Asked whether she had concerns victims might get lost in major changes, Weirich said "sometimes it does [happen]. You sat through the presentation and nobody mentioned the name [victim] until I asked the question. We're all for reform, prosecutors particularly are at the forefront of reform."

But the Memphis prosecutor said "it's got to mean more than just simply releasing people from prison and we've got to work hard every day like we do in Shelby County to make sure that the people behind bars are the people that are hurting members of our community."

When it comes to low-level offenders, Weirich said, she feels "blessed" because of Shelby County's specialized drug, mental health veterans courts.

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