This year, members of the Tennessee General Assembly have introduced bill after bill that would bulk up our state’s criminal justice system by increasing misdemeanor charges, needlessly lengthening sentences for existing criminal convictions and creating new felonies, which would also strip more Tennesseans of their voting rights. These policies don’t keep communities safe. Instead, they will only add to our already overgrown prison population and enhance racial disparities in our criminal justice system, while increasing costs for taxpayers.
As of May 2, 2021, the Tennessee General Assembly had passed three bills that would increase criminal penalties and had 38 others still pending. If all of these bills passed, the 41 total bills would result in an estimated net increase state and local incarceration costs of $57,488,109 annually. The legislation would also result in a projected increase in time to be served by people sentenced each year of 1944 years, according to the bills’ fiscal notes. Other highlights from the bills can be found in our infographic:
The spreadsheet below lists all 41 pending bills, the increases to maximum sentences they impose, and the resulting change in incarceration time and costs to taxpayers:
In March 2019, Governor Lee established the Criminal Justice Investment Task Force to address the growing fiscal and social costs of incarceration, pointing to a 34% increase in the state’s incarcerated population since 2000 and the average cost to house a state prisoner of $28,000 per year. In its interim report, published on December 19, 2019, the task force pointed out that “Tennessee’s incarceration rate has risen to 10 percent above the national average, and its communities are no safer for it.” The task force reported, “A significant driver of Tennessee’s prison population growth is the increase in sentence lengths over the past 10 years.” Among the task force’s recommendations was a rewrite of the Tennessee Sentencing Code for the 2021 legislative session.
Instead of addressing the task force’s legislative recommendation, state legislators have been increasing criminal penalties. Bills that the legislature has proposed or passed include a newly created felony sentence for vandalizing farm equipment; new felonies for witnesses to certain medical emergencies failing to notify emergency services; and a new felony for obstructing a highway, a proposal targeting protesters. Among the many collateral costs of a felony conviction, people convicted of felonies in Tennessee lose their right to vote.
Tennessee needs equitable justice reform, not unfair, expensive penalty increases.
Press release: Bills Creating New Crimes and Increasing Penalties Undermine Governor Lee’s Criminal Justice Reform Efforts (May 3, 2021)