When Gov. Bill Lee was sworn into office last year in January, among the top three platforms he vowed to embrace was criminal justice reform.
With 930 Tennesseans incarcerated for every 100,000 residents — or almost 1 percent of the state’s total population — Tennessee has one of the highest incarceration rates in the country, as well as relatively high recidivism — that is, the tendency of a criminal to reoffend.
In March of last year, Lee created the Justice Investment Task Force through executive order in the hopes of reducing recidivism and improving public safety. In late December, that task force released its interim report which outlined a list of recommendations that suggested a more rehabilitative approach to the state’s criminal justice system.
On Friday, State Rep. Brandon Ogles, who represents northern Williamson County, shared his thoughts on the proposed criminal justice reform recommendations during a speaking panel at the Columbia State Community College campus in Franklin. Ogles, who sits on the state’s Criminal Justice subcommittee, clarified to audience members that the reform would not “soften” punishments for violent offenders, but rather ‘realign’ their efforts to focus more on rehabilitation for non-violent offenders.
“I’ve got a little different perspective on some of the issues in criminal justice because I do represent northern Williamson County, and some of the issues we’re looking at statewide — recidivism and all that — people from Brentwood and north Williamson County don’t want crime from Nashville coming down into Williamson County,” Ogles said. “People in my district are calling it catch and release — we don’t want people committing violent and sexual crimes to be released early, we want them to stay in jail and do their time.”
Ogles continued, clarifying what he viewed as different tiers of criminal offenses.
“I will say, that topic is getting a lot of press, but that does not mean we’re trying to let bad people out of jail,” Ogles said. “People with drug addictions, failures to pay fines, mental health — we’re trying to get them help quickly, get them in the system and get them out. That’s an effort to focus our time on the hardened criminals; the people who are hurting you, breaking into your house, hurting children, hurting women… that’s the focus on some of the reform, and that’s the part that I’m really focused on.”
The moderator of the discussion panel, Dave Crouch, described the governor’s push for criminal justice reform as a “desire to soften things up a little bit, to put more emphasis on rehabilitation instead of punishment.”
Ogles argued that the term ‘soften’ didn’t fit the mold of what the governor was advocating for.
“I think we’ve got a little bit of a messaging issue there, I wouldn’t say it’s a softening,” Ogles said. “What we know by studying the data is if you come into the prison system and you’ve committed, let’s say a drug offense or a moving offense with your car, the longer you stay in the system, the more violent you do become. So the focus is actually to get you help, get you employed - let you actually contribute to society and pay your taxes — get out of the system, do what you’re told to do, and then get back to work — and don’t come back.”
“I don’t know about prisoners, but they say the longer you put a dog on the chain, the meaner he gets,” Crouch responded. “Maybe there’s a correlation there, I don’t know.”
The Justice Investment Task Force’s interim report includes, among others, recommendations to expand access to alternative sentencing such as probation, make the parole process more efficient, as well as to reduce probation terms. To read the report in its entirety, click here.