TN leaders joining forces to try and reform the state’s criminal justice system

TRI-CITIES, TN (WJHL)- Leaders from advocacy, business, and service groups in Tennessee are partnering to try and reform the criminal justice system in Tennessee.

Right now the majority of inmates in many Tri-Cities jails are repeat offenders. In most cases in Tennessee offenders get out years before serving their full sentence, but many land right back behind bars.

“Our work load is not getting any less we’re handling more and more cases,” Sullivan County Public Defender Stephen Wallace said.

As a public defender, tax dollars pay Wallace to represent people charged with crimes  who can’t afford a lawyer.

He said many of those cases involve defendants who have been in the system before, “Recidivism, there’s a lot of it,” Wallace said. “Our jails in Sullivan County, it’s crowded.”

And that’s something the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee is trying to change, partnering with other agencies to form the “Coalition for Sensible Justice.”

ACLU-Tennessee Executive Director Hedy Weinberg said the coalition is just a few weeks old, but it’s aim is to pursue legislation focused on things like sentencing reform and reducing the amount of recidivism .

“There are far too many non-violent criminals that enter the system and as we look at our system today it’s a revolving door,” Weinberg said.

According to ACLU-Tennessee, Tennessee’s incarceration rate is 11 percent higher than the national average as of 2014, costing Tennessee taxpayers over $900 million a year.

“There are so many folks who could be provided with the right kind of treatment programs, work prep programs, and other rehab programs that don’t need to be in the criminal justice system,” Weinberg said.

Over at the district attorney’s office, Barry Staubus wants to see some changes in the system, such as defendants serving their full sentence, instead of only serving a percentage of it as is often the case.

“I’d like to have laws in effect where we know exactly what the defendants got in the way of a sentences, when they’re going to be released, how much they’re going to be incarcerated, so that we can tell families and victims with some assurance exactly what that means,” Staubus said.

Weinberg said the Coalition for Sensible Justice will start holding town halls across the state, looking for partner agencies to push for reform in the justice system.

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