Tennessee governor leads forum for ex-offenders, signs bill in Memphis

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee was in Memphis on Tuesday with the goal of making life easier on ex-offenders.

Lee, who spoke to a packed house at the University of Memphis, stated during his first State of the State address that this bill would be one of his legislative priorities.

The vicious cycle of crime and poverty is well known, but Lee says by helping convicts get jobs and save money, the state of Tennessee can help these people find a productive life and sustained success.

“The key is connecting employers with those that are coming out, and breaking down the stigma and making them understand, there’s a real opportunity for them. It’s a win-win,” Lee said.

Lee led a forum on connecting ex-offenders to businesses and jobs after their time served. There are budget and logistics hurdles, but the biggest thing they’re asking for is a chance.

"They need positive influences to tell them how to get to that goal that they’re trying to reach,” Shelby County Sheriff Floyd Bonner said.

Billy Irvine is a former felon who did his time and got his record expunged. Now he’s just asking for a chance to make a positive impact.

"We’re all hungry," Irvine said. "There are programs within incarceration that help tailor your path once re-entered back into society.”

Deandre Brown, executive director with Lifeline to Success, said, “When people make a bad decision and commit offenses against the law, you shouldn’t be punished for that for the rest of your life. Because what happens if you’ve done things to rectify that?”

Lee also signed a ceremonial bill that will eliminate the $450 expungement fee that is currently required from those who want to clear their record.

The goal is to eliminate as many barriers as possible for men and women that are trying to become contributing members of society.

“This is one of those monumental moments that we can look back on, I believe, in our state’s history — as we look toward Memphis and say we did something that changed the trajectory of our city,” Brown said.

Lee says his ultimate goal is to help reduce and one day even eliminate ex-offenders who are released into society and then commit more crime.

"This is not a matter of being soft on those that are incarcerated," Lee said. "This is about those that are coming out, being smart with how it is that we make them successful.”

Later Tuesday afternoon, Lee teamed up with Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dr. Joris Ray to speak with children and volunteers with YMCA's Y on the Fly program, which provides books, food, water safety education and other education programs for children in the community.

On Wednesday, the governor will head to the Seventh National Suicide and the Black Church Conference.

— By Peter Fleischer

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