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Criminal Justice Reform

An unlikely coalition of Nashville businesses, social service and advocacy groups is launching an effort to reform criminal justice in Tennessee, where the incarceration rate is 11 percent higher than the national average.

Through the newly formed Tennessee Coalition for Sensible Justice, backers plan to pursue legislation initially focused on juvenile justice, lowering the rates of people returning to prison and changing sentencing guidelines for those convicted of crimes.

The coalition includes the American Civil Liberties Union, the Tennessee Association of Goodwills, the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce and the Beacon Center of Tennessee, which advocates for smaller government.

"It's not about being tough or soft on crime, it's about being effective on crime," said Justin Owen, president and CEO of the Beacon Center of Tennessee. "We are spending entirely too much taxpayer money on a system that is not working and actually making Tennessee less safe."

The state spends $900 million on incarceration annually, according to data provided by the coalition. While the state's imprisonment rate increased by 256 percent between 1981 and 2013, Tennessee's violent crime rate remains among the highest in the nation, a news release said.

Matthew Bourlakas (left to right), Hedy Weinberg, Justin Owen and Ralph Schulz, announced the formation of the Tennessee Coalition for Sensible Justice on Tuesday, Sept. 20, 2016. (Photo: Joel Ebert)

Ralph Schulz, president and CEO of the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce, said businesses have a stake in the state's high incarceration rates.

"The number of workers retiring over the next decade is expected to be larger than the number entering the job market," Schulz said. "For business, providing training and employment in a vibrant labor market will be key to maintaining prosperity and that's why our members support this coalition."

Hedy Weinberg, executive director of ACLU-TN, called the state's criminal justice system a "revolving door."

"These diverse organizations from across the political spectrum came together because we all agree that criminal justice reform is both necessary and urgent," Weinberg said. "Our current criminal justice system is functioning like a revolving door. We as a state can and must do better to ensure public safety, fair treatment and equality in the justice system."

Speaking at a press conference on Tuesday, Owen said the coalition is initially planning to work on driver's license reform, which he said is necessary because people have lost their licenses for reasons that have nothing to do with driving or because they can't pay fines in a timely manner once they leave the prison system.

"In many cases if you take someone's driver's license away they can't get a job," he said. "You're making it even harder for them to become a productive taxpaying citizen."

Owen also said the coalition would be looking at allowing former offenders clear their record after a few years without re-offending. He added that the group will also focus on front-end programs such as community-based efforts to prevent juveniles from ever entering the criminal justice system.

When asked if the coalition supported efforts in Nashville and Memphis to give people caught with small amounts of marijuana a chance to avoid a criminal record, Weinberg said despite the ACLU-TN supporting the measure, the newly formed coalition would not be taking a position on the issue.


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In the immediate future, the coalition plans to hold a series of town hall meetings and enlist other organizations in the effort before the Tennessee legislature reconvenes in January.

Although another portion of the coalition's efforts will focus on transparency in the criminal justice system, Weinberg said that could begin with raising awareness.

"I think we've learned from our conversations that the public doesn't know about some of the state laws that create the barriers to people being able to become productive members of our community," she said.

An August poll conducted by icitizen, a Nashville-based polling agency, found that as many as 73 percent of Tennesseans want more transparency in the criminal justice system.

Owen said the coalition is still determining what it would like to do on the transparency front. "I do think taxpayers deserve to know how their money is being spent and whether it's being spent wisely," he said.

The coalition's formation comes months after lawmakers approved several measures related to the state's criminal justice system, including one that would make three or more convictions for simple possession a misdemeanor.

Reach Anita Wadhwani at 615-259-8092 or on Twitter @AnitaWadhwani.

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