Where criminal justice reform stands in Tenessee

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. — One of the legislative issues largely put aside because of the pandemic this year was criminal justice reform. It’s a topic long talked about by Tennessee lawmakers and it’s likely to be at the top of their agenda next year.

House Speaker Cameron Sexton described the broad goals of criminal justice reform — tough but fair.

“You don’t want to have a revolving door, you don’t want to have recidivism,” he said.

“But I think you need to have tough punishment but you also need to be fair whenever they serve their time and they come out and give them the opportunity to be successful.”

That’s the big picture for criminal justice reform which has been a topic in recent years from Washington, D.C. to Tennessee.

“We cannot continue doing what we have been doing in the past,” said Rep. Sam Whitson.

Those words from a Franklin state representative late last year at the groundbreaking of a home for women exiting incarceration. Building more prisons may not be the answer say some lawmakers like Whitson, but will resources be made available to help non-violent offenders?

That’s the debate ahead said the house speaker.

“That means maybe some alternative sentencing, maybe helping them find a job when they come out of rehabilitation services.”

Lofty goals for criminal justice reform bills go right to the top. Last December Tennessee Governor Bill Lee talked about what reforms could accomplish.

“Improve our recidivism rate for one and lower our crime rate at the same time.”

If COVID-19 lingers until next year, it will be uncertain how much progress can be made on criminal justice reform.

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