Lee is seeking to educate prisoners

Gov. Bill Lee wants to invest millions into Tennessee court and prison systems to give criminal offenders an education, support and a chance to clear their records. Lee’s office on Thursday announced a suite of criminal justice reforms that will be included in his legislative priorities for the year. They are consistent with Lee’s position on the campaign trail of focusing on rehabilitating criminals. His proposals include:

 $10.5 million to outfit eight state prisons with equipment needed to provide high school education and college-level courses on computer information technology, building construction and other topics.

 $1.7 million in additional funding for state recovery courts, which divert some offenders in criminal cases out of the traditional court system and into treatment for substance abuse.

 The elimination of a $180 expungement fee that will allow eligible lower-level offenders to clear their criminal records for free.

Lee is expected to discuss his plans in more detail next week during the annual State of the State address and other public appearances. But he explained the reasoning behind his three criminal justice priorities in a statement. “We must significantly improve public safety in our state and I believe that starts with our criminal justice system,” Lee said in a statement. “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.”

Lawmaker calls Lee’s criminal justice reform plan ‘fantastic’

State Rep. Michael Curcio, a key ally in the General Assembly, called Lee’s proposals “fantastic” in an interview Thursday. Curcio, R-Dickson, chairs the House Judiciary Committee. He has supported other criminal justice reforms and said Lee’s plans jelled with the message that propelled him to the governor’s office.

“Obviously we’ve got a governor who spent the past year or more barnstorming the state talking about reforms,” Curcio said. “This is kind of the tip of the spear.” Curcio said his colleagues in the legislature have signaled their willingness to pursue reforms. He was hopeful Lee’s proposals would be met with support. “I hope this is a great turning point,” Curcio said. State Sen. Raumesh Akbari, D-Memphis, was similarly enthusiastic about Lee’s plans. Akbari has pushed for years to lower or eliminate expungement fees. The governor’s plan would make it easier for people with criminal records to find housing and jobs and contribute to their communities, she said. She also praised his proposed funding for education and recovery courts.

Akbari said she hoped to see Lee pursue more reforms as he continues in office.

“I think it’s a great step forward,” she said of Lee’s plan. “I’d like to see it go even further.”

Education behind bars a clear focus for Lee

Education will be a prominent priority in Lee’s Department of Correction.

Lee wants added funding for high school and college education behind bars. A statement from his office pointed out more than 30 percent of Tennessee inmates don’t have a high school education.

The $10.5 million infusion would go toward high school and college education, including a three-year partnership with the Tennessee Higher Education Commission to provide “career and technical credentials” to prisoners.

Six new “re-entry navigators” would be hired to provide college and job counseling to inmates approaching their release dates. The funding also would support a new bachelor’s-level college program at Turney Center Industrial Complex in Only, Tennessee.

Explaining the rationale behind the investments, Lee referenced research that shows inmates who get education behind bars are much less likely to re-offend after they are released.

“By offering quality education programming, inmates have a 43 percent lower chance of reentering prison than those who do not receive this education,” Lee said.

Existing education programming in Tennessee prisons already has grabbed headlines.

Former Gov. Bill Haslam cited it as a key factor in his decision to clear the early release of Cyntoia Brown, a woman who was sentenced to life for a murder she committed at 16

Brown, 31, had not finished high school when she entered prison. But she will leave in August with a bachelor’s degree from Lipscomb University.

Recovery courts aim to keep people out of prison

The governor said additional money for the state’s recovery courts would allow the specialty courts to grow capacity by 20 percent, serving 500 additional people every year.

The goal, his office said, was to give people help in the short term in an effort to prevent them from re-offending and returning to court in the long term. Lee’s office said eliminating expungement fees would mean more offenders would have a leg up in the job and housing markets. Criminal records can make it harder for people to find housing and jobs — problems that would be eased by clearing their records.

Only offenders convicted of lower-level felonies and some misdemeanors are eligible for expungement.

Lee’s focus on criminal justice reform comes as bipartisan support for similar measures is growing nationwide.

“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.”

Source: Knoxville News Sentinel, by Adam Tamburin

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Published March 8, 2019