Panel tackles criminalal justice system in Tennessee
For the first time in two decades, Tennessee lawmakers want to take a hard look at the way the state punishes criminals.
All seem to agree that the current system is broken.
The Tennessee Senate Judiciary Committee on Monday began a two-day discussion of how Tennessee ended up in the state it’s in and where it should go.
“We ranked No. 1 in the nation in our violent crime rate,” said Bill Gibbons, commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Safety and Homeland Security, referring to 2012 crime statistics. “Obviously that’s not an acceptable position to be in.”
He rattled off a list of major problems in the state. Gangs have taken hold not just in urban areas, but rural as well. Drugs continue to plague the state, particular methamphetamines. The state has an appallingly high rate of domestic violence. And 46 percent of prisoners end up back in prison within three years of release.
David Raybin, a Nashville attorney who helped write many of the state’s criminal justice laws, said much of the blame for Tennessee’s situation can be traced back to 1995, when a commission devoted solely to sentencing reform was dissolved.
“In 1995 the soul and conscience of the criminal justice system passed out of existence. There was no longer a system. It was just a free-for-all except, of course, it wasn’t free,” he said. “The wheels came off the bus in 1995, and now, 20 years later, we have yet another commission to review our laws. We have been there before. We have done this before.”
Since then, Tennessee has created a patchwork of criminal laws with varying penalties — typically trending toward harsher punishments.
The end result, Raybin said, is that Tennessee now locks up more people than all of Australia does (with four times the population), at a cost of more than $1 billion each year. RAYBIN Presentation for Criminal Sentencing for 2014
The committee will hold a second hearing Tuesday to look at what other states have done to successfully reduce crime and recidivism and hear recommendations on how to make the system work better.
Reach Brian Haas the Tennessean September 15, 2014