By Hedy Weinberg and Justin Owen

One of the most promising and exciting developments in Tennessee right now is the bipartisan partnership in pursuit of criminal justice reform.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee, Beacon Center of Tennessee, Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce, Tennessee Association of Goodwill Industries and Tennessee County Services Association teamed up to establish the Tennessee Coalition for Sensible Justice.

The goal of the coalition is to make our communities safer, protect taxpayers’ money, and increase accountability, all while treating fairly and with dignity those individuals who come into contact with the system.

In our first year, our coalition was able to achieve meaningful reforms for juveniles. Now, juveniles with minor status offenses — such as truancy or delinquency — can clear their record at age 17 rather than 18, making them more likely to turn their lives around and get into college, trade schools or find a good job before it is too late. In addition, juveniles who are eligible to have their records expunged will now be notified by a judge of this opportunity.

We also helped pass a law to assist those whose contact with the criminal justice system resulted in crippling financial debt. Prior to that law, those individuals who had court fines or fees were required to pay them off within one year or else they would lose their driver’s license.

Even individuals whose cases were dismissed or who were found not guilty would lose their licenses if they didn’t complete payment of the court fees and fines.
The new law allows those who are indigent to have their court fees and fines waived so that they can get on with their lives and become productive, taxpaying citizens. For those able to pay at least something, they can set up a payment plan to avoid losing their license.

We should follow the lead of our neighbors going forward — states like Kentucky, Georgia, Mississippi and Louisiana, which are implementing major reforms in the areas of bail, sentencing, parole, probation and more.

These states are not only reducing the number of people in prison but are also reducing crime rates.

Red states and blue states alike have offered up sensible reforms, yet Tennessee, with much higher incarceration and crime rates than the national average, has failed to follow suit.
Currently, nearly half of those leaving a Tennessee prison return within three years. Every time that happens, we’ve created another bill for taxpayers to foot, broken families and dreams and likely another career criminal.

The Coalition for Sensible Justice is committed to pursuing reforms that incentivize our corrections, probation and parole programs, funding them based on the number of people they assist successfully when they leave prison, rather than just the number of people in their custody or under their supervision.

We also need strong education and workforce development programs so that those leaving prison are able and driven to find a good job rather than re-offend. We must reform our juvenile justice system, ensuring that it is not simply a feeder system for adult prisons.

And we must actually treat substance abuse and mental health problems as serious health issues, rather than view them exclusively as criminal justice matters.

Fortunately, Governor Haslam and state legislators have begun to put forward ideas to make our criminal justice system work smarter. We look forward to joining with them to pass sensible criminal justice reforms in the months and years ahead.

We envision a criminal justice system that keeps our communities safe, respects the rights of all who have contact with it, is free of racial bias and saves taxpayer dollars.

Hedy Weinberg is the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee. Justin Owen is the president and CEO of the Beacon Center of Tennessee.

This op-ed appeared in The Tennessean on January 30, 2018.