NASHVILLE — Gov. Bill Lee is unveiling what he's calling a "comprehensive plan" to address criminal justice and public safety in advance of his first State of the State address on Monday.
"We must significantly improve public safety in our state and I believe that starts with our criminal justice system," Lee said Thursday in a news release. "We will focus on helping individuals to ensure there is a pathway to a productive life beyond crime and ultimately make our state a safer place."
His proposed initiatives include:
» Supplementing mental health efforts by expanding the recovery court system and recovery court programming.
» Eliminating the current $180 state fee now charged to clear criminal conviction records on certain charges.
» Expanding higher education programming for persons imprisoned in state prisons.
After announcing earlier this week his plans to boost state investments in mental health programming, the governor says he will expand the existing Recovery Court System. It's a specialized diversion program focused on comprehensive supervision, treatment services and immediate sanctions and incentives for substance abuse offenders.
With $1.7 million in additional funding, according to the governor's office, Recovery Courts will expand capacity by 20 percent and serve 500 more Tennesseans each year. Individuals who are successfully diverted through this programming are estimated to save the state an average of more than $20,000 per individual in recovered correction costs each year.
Calling the expungement fee "burdensome," Lee says individuals with clear records are far more likely to find employment and stable housing instead of re-entering prison.
Improving education opportunities within correctional facilities will enable inmates to gain skills needed for successful re-entry into society, according to Lee's office. New funding will improve technology infrastructure across correctional facilities to increase the number of incarcerated individuals receiving equivalent high school education.
It also includes the launch of a bachelor's degree program at Turney Center Industrial Complex.
Lee, a businessman who before his election was involved in volunteer work to help former inmates re-enter society, said that "more than 30 percent of inmates in Tennessee do not have high school education equivalency. By offering quality education programming, inmates have a 43 percent lower chance of re-entering prison than those who do not receive this education."
He is proposing a three-year $10.5 million investment and partnership with the Tennessee Higher Education Commission to provide eight state facilities with the capacity to provide career and technical credentials in areas including computer information technology and building construction.
"Public safety extends beyond party lines and has the best interest of every Tennessean in mind," Lee said. "I look forward to working with the legislature and community leaders across Tennessee to make our system a model for the rest of the country."
Earlier Thursday, House Majority Leader William Lamberth, R-Portland, quipped to reporters, "tune in Monday, I think there's going to be quite a bit to write about" in Lee's State of the State as well as the release of the governor's first state budget.
Lamberth said he expects Lee to be talking about "infrastructure," but not the typical roads, bridges and buildings when it comes to criminal justice issues.
"The infrastructure that is a part of that is sometimes the people who are involved. And I don't mean just those that might be incarcerated," the majority leader said. "I mean the people who work to try to improve those individuals who run afoul of the law and may be incarcerated or on probation."
The goal is "to try to make sure we have high quality inviduals who are involved in those fields and that they're supported by legislation to ensure that we try to reduce recidivism. So I think you going to hear a lot about some education and training opportunities for individuals who may have run afoul of the law. I think you're going to hear about pathways back to prosperity for our citizens who may have committed a crime but still need a way to be able to redeem their life and re-enter society in a positive way, a productive way."
Contact Andy Sher at firstname.lastname@example.org or 615-255-0550. Follow on Twitter @AndySher1.