Lawmakers look at steps to relieve a corrections system nearing capacity

Monday, February 4, 2013 at 3:55am

The Department of Correction is in trouble. State prisons are packed, the inmates who can’t fit in are filling up local jails, and the system for transitioning people out is losing credibility.

But policy makers back on Capitol Hill have bigger appetites to stiffen punishments for criminals than to tackle the troubled corrections system that manages the people lawmakers want thrown in there.

“Although it makes us feel good and it is an absolute necessity to lock people up, we’re losing the battle because we’re continuing to build more jails,” said Tony Shipley, a Kingsport Republican who pushes for tougher sentencing laws. “All we’re doing is perpetuating the problem and kicking the can down the road.”

The state’s 14 prisons are collectively at 98 percent capacity, with an overflow of about 5,000 inmates serving some, if not all, of their time at local jails while they wait for a prison bed to open up, according to the Department of Correction.

Gov. Bill Haslam noted the problem during his State of the State address last week. A recent study found that more than 600 violent crimes are committed per 100,000 people in Tennessee, including murder, rape, robbery and aggravated assault. The figure is second only to Washington, D.C., with more than 1,200 crimes per 100,000 people, according to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report.

Among other things, a better education system will help chip away at the problem, Haslam said, but in the meantime, he promised more money to the corrections system. His $32.7 billion budget plan released last week includes spending more than $120 million new dollars to house inmates. That would help bring the department’s budget more than $900 million next year.

The governor also wants to spend $30.2 million to expand the not-yet-reopened Bledsoe Correctional Complex — formerly Southeastern Tennessee Regional Correctional Facility — in Pikeville, which will begin accepting some 1,500 inmates this spring. The two-year expansion project would add another 512 beds.

In the meantime, Haslam wants to divvy out nearly $42 million in checks to local jails for housing more state inmates this year than the state expected, plus another $48 million for the inmates who won’t fit next year.

The number of state felons housed in county jails is on the uptick. Although last year an average of 4,825 inmates were in local jails at any one time, that tally was as low as 1,974 in 2006. The high numbers of state inmates are pushing more than 30 local prisons beyond capacity, some by more than 200 percent.

Systemwide, the total felon population has grown about 12 percent since 2005, according to agency statistics. Reasons for the increase vary, but that hasn’t slowed policy makers or enforcers from wanting to beef up laws on criminals, mostly violent ones.

Last year, Haslam made a priority of pushing new laws that would increase prison time for people repeatedly convicted of domestic violence, felons who illegally possess a gun and people engaged in gang crimes.

District attorneys say it’s their priority this year to toughen sentences on other serious crimes, like aggravated child neglect and attempted first-degree murder. They also want to boost the minimum amount of required time an inmate serves before becoming eligible for parole. Some classes of felonies require 85 percent of the sentence be served, while others require convicts serve 30 percent.

Lawmakers have picked at taking pressure off prisons over the last few years. In 2010, they agreed first-time offenders of nonviolent property crimes under $1,000 should skip prison time in favor of alternative sentencing, like parole or community corrections.

But in the past two years, lawmakers have also introduced more than 60 bills to strengthen or edit the state’s sentencing guidelines, most seeking longer time behind bars. For example, the newly adopted “Kimberly’s Law” requires people convicted of aggravated rape to serve 100 percent of their sentence.

While longer prison sentences put pressure on the Department of Correction, the agency that would like to see judges assign a higher number of lesser criminals to probation or parole.

A recent audit discovered serious flaws in the system last year. Auditors found probation or parole officers checking in on more than 80 convicts who had been dead for as long as 19 years, reporting them as alive and well. The report also found that more than 80 percent of GPS-monitored offenders’ alarms, such as those strapped to convicted sex offenders, “appeared unmonitored.”

While state officials have shifted many of those oversight duties to the Department of Correction, some lawmakers are looking at revamping the state’s Board of Parole, partially due to additional audit findings that supervisors reviewed only half of offender files required.

As the department juggles funds inmates, and its image for transitioning out inmates, there’s a bigger question lawmakers who drive sentencing policies need to consider, said Commissioner of Finance and Administration Mark Emkes.

“The big philosophical question that has to be addressed by the legislature is, do we have our sentencing where it needs to be, and if we do, then maybe we need more jails,” he said. “And if that sentencing isn’t right, then maybe we don’t need as many jails.”

7 Comments on this post:

By: sonny1024 on 2/4/13 at 4:39

One way to help the over crowding is to let the ones in SPECIAL NEEDS go home some are very old and sick and are know threat to the public, but the GOVERNOR want sign to release these men.Another is for the courts to STOP sending drug addicts to prison this could greatly help the over crowding problem. putting addicts in prison is not working it never has and never will.

By: Ask01 on 2/4/13 at 5:33

We should, I believe, only have violent offenders in prison.

That is an oversimplified concept, as there are some habitual non violent offenders who need to be seperated from society, but that's another rant.

This, by and large, is an indictment of the entire so called criminal justice system. Obviously, considering the recidivism rate, the current system isn't working to rehabilitate inmates, merely warehouse them until society feels vindicated.

Once the warehoused inmates are released, supposedly having paid their debt, they discover the lofty idea is worth spit, as their incarceration haunts them trying to find a job and actually follow the straight and narrow.

It is no wonder so many return to the prison system. Unable to find a job, no skills to offer, and none of the good moral citizens willing to give them a second chance, they often fall back into their old ways and a vicious circle, a revolving door, costing the state money which could be better used for other worthwhile projects.

For a novel concept, what if we start actually trying to rehabilitate receptive inmates, teaching them skills to adapt to society and find employment. I know the good Christian people of Nashville will complain, but the other option is to spend even more money keeping them locked up forever.

Enacting laws to prevent businesses discriminating against those with non violent convictions, focusing only on the violent, and sexual offenders, will aid those wanting to change lives to do so, and stop or at least slow the cycle.

Obviously, there are some legitimate concerns about embezzlers and others involved in workplace theft, but let's be honest, who will be the first person suspected if theft or suspicious loss is detected?

I don't have expect much to be done on this front because, after all, the only place most people want to hear about forgiveness is in places of worship, or when it is themselves being forgiven.

By: spooky24 on 2/4/13 at 6:57

First off Corrections Corporation of America is paid to house inmates not to rehabilitate them-that went out in the early 90's.
Returning to prison after being released is not the fault of society- it's the weakness of the individual as there are many programs and organizations to help these former inmates if they want help-less than 10% do.
You can't force 'treatment' on anyone and the success rates of substance abuse programs is as dismal as it's always been. Out of 100 persons getting treatment for drug and alcohol abuse less than 2 or 3 will stay clean and sober for a year-many times it's none. Tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of tax payer dollars get thrown away as person simply play along with treatment-say the right things-but have no desire whatsoever to change their habits.
There is no formula to determine who are "receptive inmates" and who are not. Obviously you haven't spent much time working in corrections as seeing this everyday you would know every prisoner is innocent and all have a line of bullshit just waiting for you to believe.
The only real solution is simple but inaccessible-stop the cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine that glides unopposed across out southern boarder every single day. not to mention the tons of marijuana grown every year in Tennessee.
On a daily basis 2000 pounds of refined cocaine comes into Tennessee every single day and is processed, distributed and sold in every corner of the state.
Prescription drug abuse is unstoppable as TennCare provides free opiate medications(paid for by the taxpayers) to thousands of individuals who sell them-it is there only source of income.
Stopping the drugs that fuel the habits that lead to crime and punishment, and the overcrowding of prisons and jails, is the only solution however Washington lacks the political will to enforce the laws already in place.

By: jambenp on 2/4/13 at 10:46

Some good points made above. My question is are these CCA managed facilities and, if so, what percentage of the inmates are "Tennessee" convict inmates and what percentage are shipped in from other states. You can see where my line of questioning is going. If prisons build and paid for by Tennessee tax dollars are being stuff with out of state prisoners so Tennessee will build more prisons, well that is just wrong and needs to be corrected.

Don't know that to be the case, just asking the question of those more informed.

By: Ask01 on 2/4/13 at 6:39

Precisely why CCA needs to be put out of business.

They are little better than modern day slavers engaging in human trade. The corporate "make money at any cost" philosophy flies totally in the face of the idea of rehabilitation. If they didn't have repeat 'business' the company would go out of business.

I realize the neanderthal attitude is to lock 'em up and throw away the key. Well, that backwards looking provencial idea hasn't worked very well has it?

There are, of course, those who are incorrigible and will commit crimes regardless steps taken to change their attitude, but if society doesn't make every attempt to reach the reachable and salvage the salvagable, then yes, society is partly to blame for the return rate.

I perceive the people who support CCA as it exists as either stockholders, employees, or perhaps just ignorant lowlifes who derive their self importance seeing someone else's troubles.

I realize the connection is hard to form for some, but we are going to pay one way or the other. We try to set inmates straight and on a new beginning or they can continue returning for the same offenses time after time costing even more money.

Now, which would you prefer? Spend some money up front and try rehabilitation, or just warehouse them for their sentence so they can go out, commit another crime and return to the system?

Gee, I think the cheaper way is to try rehabilitating them instead of keeping on locking them up.

By: Moonglow1 on 2/5/13 at 10:43

Moonglow1: the state's lax gun laws or shall I say everything goes gun laws absolutely contribute to crime. However, as per the other posts, private prison companies only make money when prisons and jails are full and supported by our tax dollars. If we had a governor that was not blindly beholden to ALEC policies, we might not be in the fix we are in currently. Some of the other Repub governors are breaking from ALEC (American Legislative Executive Council), but not our governmor. He is more focused than ever on giving away your tax dollars to private enterprise which by the way is not more efficient than government. As a matter of fact, your tax dollars go to support for-profit companies that tell the government (federal and state) that they can do the job more efficiently and less costly. However, people like Haslam make sure there is no oversight and these companies can then operate with impunity.

By: proverty on 2/6/13 at 12:07

i feel that the system will treat you better if you ar rich and wealthy. i think the citizens need to vote on the laws for the TDOC and board of parole. Tax dollars are been wasted on building new jails. release some of the people that are injail. the system is over crowed. the citizens are paying to much taxes to house inmates. the telephone calls are so high that people cant afford to talk to thee love ones. i feel that we are back in proverty slavery times. the inmates can recieve packages from a factory but they cant recieve packages from there love ones. it cost to much money to buy packages from the company that TDOC has picked. i pray next election that the citizens can pick the board members and staff. when you call the board they have bad attitudes. the board want to take back street time and the citizens has to pay for extenened stay. the tax payers are paying to much money release some of the people. instead of building jails build a homeless center fo the needed.or centers where the kids of today can go for activity.