Tennessee's Prison Population Is Growing, And a New Task Force Hopes To Change That

Oct 14, 2019

The number of Tennessee women admitted to jails or prisons on felony charges has increased almost 50% in the past decade.
Credit ANNE MARSHALL / WPLN

Tennessee's incarceration rate is on the rise — defying a nationwide trend. A new task force appointed by Gov. Bill Lee hopes to change that.

But for now, the group's focus is narrow: reducing the number of felons who end up back behind bars after they're released.

The Criminal Justice Investment Task Force says new data revealed at its first meeting will inform policy proposals. And the numbers were striking.

 


The state's prison population has grown almost 400% since 1978. And the number of offenders outside prison but still under state supervision has also jumped.

But criminal justice reform advocate Gicola Lane says these numbers won't go down if the task force doesn't target the root causes of incarceration.

"You can't just say, ‘Oh, we're just going to focus on recidivism,' when the same reason why they would be, you know, going back to prison is the same way many people end up there in the first place, which are the social problems that we are not investing in."

A handful of groups have been disproportionately impacted, researchers say. Black Tennesseans are incarcerated at three times the rate of white residents. And the number of women in jails and prisons has gone up nearly 50% in the past decade alone.

Overall the number of new felony admissions to jails and prisons is down. But the data suggests people are serving longer sentences, often for drug and property crimes, and that they're less likely to be granted to parole.

Lane says incarceration rates hinge on individuals access — or lack thereof — to community resources. Barriers to housing, health care and living wages all play a role, she says. And, she adds, the current system "isn't working."

"What we have to do is change what we're investing in, which is investing in people and their communities instead of investing in separating people and putting them in cages," Lane says. 

The task force, however, plans to take a different approach.

Brandon Gibson, a senior advisor to Gov. Bill Lee, told reporters the administration's priority is to use the data presented specifically to reduce the number of felons who re-enter state custody after they're released. 

"The goal initially is to really work on that recidivism number and to lower it, to make sure that more of our people who come out of the state prison system are not cycling back through it into this system," Gibson says.

She pointed to workforce development and educational opportunities within prisons as some potential areas where the state could invest to reduce that rate.

Subcommittees will meet in the coming weeks to review the data and discuss policy proposals. The task force expects to make recommendations by the end of this year.

But Gibson says uncovering this data was only the first step in the administration's plans for criminal justice reform.

"This presentation was an opportunity for us to have the 'what'," Gibson says. "So, we will be digging into the 'why' and try to see if we can isolate what's going on out there to be able to make it more uniform across the state."

Samantha Max is a Report for America corps member.