Tennessee governor signs criminal justice bills into law as Chattanooga councilwoman looks on

Gov. Bill Lee hands Chattanooga City Councilwoman Demetrus Coonrod the pen he used to sign two of his criminal justice bills into law at the Tennessee State Museum in Nashville on Monday May 24, 2021. (Photo by Andy Sher/Chattanooga Times Free Press).

NASHVILLE - Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee on Monday signed into law two criminal justice reform bills he championed this year that will offer community-based alternatives to incarceration for low-level or nonviolent felons and help inmates with education and life skills.

Lee said the measures should improve the chances of success once incarcerated people are released from prison.

"This is how we transform lives," said Lee, a businessman who prior to running for governor in 2018 had worked as a volunteer for Men of Valor, a men's Christian ministry that mentors prisoners. He later became a board member. As a candidate, Lee pledged to work on criminal justice reforms.

Standing by the governor at Monday's bill-signing event at the Tennessee State Museum was Chattanooga Councilwoman Demetrus Coonrod, who overcame her own hardscrabble start in life, including a federal prison sentence.

Eventually turning her life around, Coonrod became a businesswoman, got her voting rights restored and ran successfully for the council in 2017.

"I could never forget the years that my life changed, being stripped of my government name and identified by eight numbers: 4o467074," Coonrod told attendees.

photo Gov. Lee signs criminal justice reform bills into law on Monday May 24, 2021, at the Tennessee State Museum as Chattanooga City Councilwoman Coonrod applauds. (Photo by Andy Sher/Chattanooga Times Free Press).

Being in prison is "often a matter of survival, of simply serving this time," Coonrod told to the audience.

"Thank you Gov. Bill Lee for pushing the conversation of criminal justice reform. This gives opportunities to convicted felons to learn or relearn the fundamental social skills and habits of the heart that are essential to being a member of a healthy community."

Speaking later with the Times Free Press, Coonrod described various trouble she'd gotten into. She recalled becoming pregnant at age 12. Later, she said she got "involved in a group of people, I was on the wrong path in life."

"Throughout my life from juvenile on, I was in and out of the system. I ended up ultimately serving 84 months, which is seven years in a federal prison institute. And it was there that I decided I definitely can't go back to being the same person I was ... I was determined, and I was focused."

She said the conviction resulted from her having loaned her car to a friend who used it to commit a robbery, resulting in a conspiracy conviction.

Lee's bills were what he was able to muster through the General Assembly following a 2019 criminal justice task force's recommendations, which drew concerns from some prosecutors.

The bills signed by Lee are:

> The Re-entry Success Act. It's intended to improve outcomes for formerly incarcerated persons by setting a framework for the state Board of Parole to evaluate release of low-level and non-violent offenders when they reach their release eligibility date if they have completed required classes and training. It also supports county jails in implementing evidence-based programs, including parenting classes, substance abuse treatment and educational opportunities. Another provision removes barriers by eliminating restricted driver's license application fees and authorizes parole hearings via video.

> Alternatives to Incarceration: The law will expand treatment services and community-based supervision for offenders as alternatives to incarceration. It allows a judge to examine offenders on an individual basis and expands low-level offenses eligible for referral to specialty courts such as drug or mental health courts. It also prioritizes community-based alternatives and, Lee's office says, "provides guardrails for swift correction" while maintaining "encouraging behaviors" such as keeping a job, remaining connected with families and support groups as well as community involvement.

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