“Tennessee Coalition for Sensible Justice” Launches

Organizations From Across Political Spectrum Call for Criminal Justice Reform

Affiliate: ACLU of Tennessee
September 20, 2016 12:30 pm

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NASHVILLE – Leaders from advocacy, business and social service groups with constituents across the state came together today to launch the Tennessee Coalition for Sensible Justice. The nonpartisan coalition is committed to advancing criminal justice reform. Founding organizations include the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee, the Beacon Center of Tennessee, the Tennessee Association of Goodwills, and the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce.

“These diverse organizations from across the political spectrum came together because we all agree that criminal justice reform is both necessary and urgent,” said Hedy Weinberg, ACLU-TN executive director. “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. This coalition will be a powerful advocate for smart-on-crime policies at the legislature.”

The coalition will promote reforms that enhance public safety, promote rehabilitation and re-entry, and save taxpayer dollars in order to create a just and fair criminal justice system that offers every Tennessean the opportunity to become a productive member of society.

“Safety of all Tennesseans is our number one priority, and that is why we are supporting criminal justice reform,” said Justin Owen, president and CEO of the Beacon Center of Tennessee. “It’s not about being tough or soft on crime, it’s about being effective on crime. We are spending entirely too much taxpayer money on a system that is not working and is actually making Tennessee less safe. We look forward to working with the other members of the coalition to push effective reforms that will get justice for victims, save taxpayers money, and make our communities safer.”

Tennessee’s incarceration rate is 11 percent higher than the national average as of 2014, costing Tennessee taxpayers over $900 million annually. The state’s high incarceration rate does not appear to correspond with a proportional increase in public safety: Even as Tennessee’s imprisonment rate increased by 256 percent between 1981 and 2013, Tennessee’s violent crime rate remains among the highest in the nation. However, in 33 states that have reduced imprisonment rates, there has been a 13% decline in crime rates.

“Currently in Tennessee, 46 percent of people released from prisons or jails are re-incarcerated within three years. Productive, paid work is the key to restoring their dignity and stopping this cycle, but a felony record can be a daunting barrier to employment,” said Matthew Bourlakas, president and CEO of Goodwill Industries of Middle Tennessee, Inc. “With the right kind of help, such as the many training programs offered by Goodwill, these people can turn their lives around.”

A recent poll shows that 95 percent of Tennessee voters agree that at least some reform of the criminal justice system is needed. Seventy-one percent of voters believe that people who have been to prison can turn their lives around with the right kind of help, but nearly 80 percent believe that currently prison does not do a good job of transitioning criminal offenders to become productive members of society.

“The number of workers retiring over the next decade is expected to be larger than the number entering the job market,” said Ralph Schulz, president and CEO, Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce. “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.”

The coalition will initially pursue legislative initiatives focused on juvenile justice, sentencing reform and recidivism reduction.

Prior to the legislative session, the group plans to hold a series of town hall meetings and reach out to other organizations with an interest in criminal justice reform across the state.

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