To build on Tennessee’s success in public safety, let’s rethink community supervision
In his February State of the State address, Gov. Bill Lee sent a clear message that public safety in Tennessee is a top priority.
By announcing over $4.7 million in funding for reporting centers and evidence-based community supervision systems, the governor has emerged as a leader in the criminal justice space and his intent for probation and parole is clear—make them not only efficient, but also effective.
“This approach,” he said, “ensures that re-entry to society is done in the most safe and effective way possible for those who were formerly incarcerated.”
The governor’s budget provision is the most recent effort in a larger push to rethink how Tennessee goes about ensuring liberty and fairness for those that interact with its justice system.
The last major effort in this space came in 2016 with the passage of the Public Safety Act (PSA), a piece of legislation that overhauled some sections of the ailing probation and parole system.
What the act brings to the table
One key part of the PSA allows for graduated sanctions: a way to hold those with technical violations of parole and probation accountable without sending them directly to prison.
Before graduated sanctions, people could easily slide into incarceration for non criminal actions such as driving across county lines or simply having a beer while on probation. By 2018, the PSA helped to cut technical violation incarcerations by 21%, saving $32 million in taxpayer dollars.
Building on the success of the PSA, legislators have just overwhelmingly passed a bill designed to further cut down on technical violation incarcerations—this time taking aim at probation revocations.
If signed into law, this new legislation would, among other things, prohibit judges from revoking an individual’s probation based upon only one instance of a technical violation or violations.
Then later on, if a revocation does occur, there are hard limits for how long someone can be incarcerated for not complying fully with their supervision requirements. Another bill also headed to the Governor’s desk this session would make similar changes to the parole system.
These are all positive steps toward creating a better future for community supervision in Tennessee, but there are still many areas that need improvement.
Places where we can rethink
For example, take the length of probation. Modern research shows that lengthy terms of community supervision have a negligible effect on public safety. Despite this, the average probation term in the Volunteer State has nearly doubled from 18 months in 2000, to 33 months in 2018.
By keeping people on probation and parole longer than need be, we are simply wasting money that could be better spent on public safety measures that have a real impact. A majority of states have maximum felony probation terms of five years or less. Many states cap misdemeanor probation terms to three years or less.
The bill currently under consideration in Nashville would start to address this problem by capping probation lengths at eight years for a single felony conviction.
Another step in the right direction that Tennessee should consider would be expanding opportunities for earned time credits. Some incarcerated individuals can already be considered for early parole if they complete certain tasks such as substance abuse or mental health courses.
However, those on probation or parole are unable to do the same. Offering positive incentives for education, employment and other similar accomplishments would not only encourage individuals to lead productive lives, but also convey a sense of human dignity while they work to get their lives back on track.
Texas, Arkansas, Mississippi, Utah, Arizona and South Carolina all allow time reductions for those under community supervision if they achieve certain goals.
Of note is Missouri, which has had an earned time-credit program since 2012 and has seen remarkable success. In the first three years alone, more than 36,000 people were able to reduce their probation and parole terms by an average of 14 months.
While Tennessee’s recent legislative victories and accomplishments in rethinking community supervision should be commended, there is still much more work to be done. Justice can often be hard to balance, but with costly packed prisons on one end, and common sense solutions on the other; the choice is quite clear.
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