Bills Creating New Crimes, Penalties Undermine Governor’s Criminal Justice Reform Efforts

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May 3, 2021

Lindsay Kee, ACLU-TN, (615) 320-7142

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – The American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee today released an analysis of passed and currently pending legislation illustrating that the Tennessee General Assembly is undermining Governor Bill Lee’s criminal justice reform agenda.

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 in 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.

“This should be a wake-up call for state legislators. The governor’s own criminal justice task force has pointed out that we need to rethink our sentencing laws if we want to reduce our ever-increasing incarceration rates,” said Hedy Weinberg, ACLU of Tennessee executive director. “Increasing sentences does not necessarily ensure public safety or deter crime, and it wastes taxpayer dollars. What’s more, laws like these and their disproportionate enforcement against communities of color also lead to racial disparities in incarceration. Increasing criminal penalties is the last thing we should be doing right now.”

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.

“We are already wasting over a billion dollars annually on an unjust and ineffective corrections system in our state,” said Brandon Tucker, ACLU of Tennessee policy director. “We will never reduce mass incarceration in Tennessee if lawmakers simply continue incarcerating more and more people for more and more time.”

The ACLU’s legislative analysis and infographic released today are available at:

2021-05-03T15:45:19-05:00 May 3rd, 2021|Categories: Press Releases|