More than 22,000 Tennessee residents live in a prison cell, an incarceration rate that is ten percent higher than the national average. Thirty percent of these convicts do not have a high school diploma, making it much more difficult for those leaving prison to reintegrate into society. Tennessee State legislatures plan to change this.
How? By adding two new laws to reform the State’s criminal justice system. The plan is in two parts: First, develop community-based alternatives to imprisonment. Then, improve the way that inmates are reintroduced into society.
Both bills were proposed by Governor Bill Lee, who visited the Morgan County Correctional Complex near Wartburg, Tennessee. It is one of the largest prisons in the state and has already implemented elements of the two-law plan. What do these laws specifically tackle, and how do they work in the real world?
What the Laws Do
The first law is called the AIA, or the Alternatives to Incarceration Act. The name is generally self-explanatory, but several smaller steps encapsulated in this law clearly outline how those who commit crimes get the help they need.
- Drug Treatment: Those convicted of misdemeanors involving force are given the option to participate in a drug court treatment program. However, there are exceptions. Anyone whose crime included domestic assault, use of a deadly weapon, or death/serious injury of another person is not permitted to participate.
- Loosening Restrictions on Low-Level Offenses: Anyone charged with a low-level offense is given the lowest level of restrictive conditions. For example, someone charged with driving on a suspended license because of unpaid fees can wait for trial at home instead of inside of a prison cell.
- 10-Year Maximum Sentencing: Probation sentences are capped at ten years for several felony offenses. Courts can only give eight years for someone given a singular probation sentence.
The Alternatives to Incarceration Act is set to take effect on July 1, 2021. The second law – the Re-Entry Success Act (RSA) – focuses on reintegration plans for inmates. The goal is to prevent ex-convicts from re-offending while also ensuring the community stays safe. The RSA does this through a series of methods:
- Supervision: Anyone released from prison is required to attend a supervision program.
- Employment: Employers are shielded from liability over any previously imprisoned employees. This allows employers to be more comfortable hiring those with a criminal background. By ensuring ex-convicts have a better chance of getting a job, it is less likely they will reoffend as they can support themselves without resorting to crime.
- Education: Community colleges in Tennessee can develop programs specific to their county to aid those previously incarcerated to reintegrate into the community.
This last point – Education – is currently being integrated into the prison system.
Case Study: The Morgan County Correctional Complex
Ninety-five percent of those incarcerated leave prison. However, half of the people leaving Tennessee prisons will return to their cell within three years. Education has proven to give prisoners a sense of hope for the future, decreasing their likelihood of reoffending. By teaching valuable skills, inmates are also more likely to get jobs out of prison. Since they can financially support themselves, they are less likely to turn to crime for a paycheck.
The Morgan County Correctional Complex is teaming up with the Tennessee College of Applied Technology to teach valuable skills to inmates. By completing these programs, inmates receive a certificate of attainment. Those who go through these programs and earn these certificates are 40 percent less likely to return to prison.
Chattanooga criminal lawyers continue to work with state legislators to ensure that those charged with crimes pay their dues without incurring extra costs. The goal is for those who commit crimes to not reoffend, and the only way to do that is through rehabilitation over incarceration.