Governor Bill Lee delved into criminal justice reform at the 66th Tennessee Judicial Conference. He explored why he feels reform is so crucial and emphasized that state judges have a large role to play in helping to plan and implement that reform.
Governor Lee started off by acknowledging the judiciary’s longstanding attention to criminal justice reform.
“This room of people has been thinking about this subject and working on it long before it became as popular a subject as it is today,” he said. “I’m grateful to every single one of you for the work that’s been done, the foundations that have been laid. For me to have the opportunity to build upon those is an honor.”
Governor Lee spoke about how his perspective on criminal justice reform was influenced by his experience volunteering in a men’s prisoner reentry program. As a part of that program, he mentored prisoners returning to society and saw the challenges they faced.
“I learned through that process a lot about the folks who are incarcerated,” he said. “Justice needs to be swift and severe for those who have committed crimes that are particularly harmful to our society, but I also learned a lot about the fact that most of them are coming out, and how we deal with them when they come out profoundly affects recidivism and the crime rate.”
Governor Lee suggested that engaging the private sector is key to providing jobs and training to formerly incarcerated people.
“If we’re successful with their reentry than you’re not going to be seeing them again, and part of the success of that reentry is to engage the private sector in more meaningful ways to employ those who are reentering,” he said.
Governor Lee floated the idea of seeking alternatives to imprisonment for some offenders. This could have a positive economic benefit because incarcerating a single prisoner costs at least $30,000 per year, Governor Lee said.
“How do we not incarcerate those folks that we all probably know don’t need to be incarcerated, but we haven’t developed a very good plan to do something otherwise?” he asked. One possible avenue for these people would be GPS or community monitoring, which would allow them to “continue to provide for their families and continue to be contributors to society.”
As the Governor spoke, he was realistic about the enormity of the challenge ahead in the pursuit of criminal justice reform.
“It’s going to be hard work,” he said. “It’s easy to talk about moving the needle on recidivism; it’s very difficult to actually move it. It is going to take collaborative work. It is going to take out-of-the-box thinking. It is going to take recognizing that being smart on crime and tough on crime at the same time can coexist. That justice is important to victims and justice is important to the incarcerated.”
Rather than shy away from the challenge, though, Governor Lee said he looked forward to facing it with the cooperation of the Tennessee judiciary. Indeed, he is currently putting together a criminal justice reform task force to tackle the issue.
“Some of you will be involved with that, but I hope that everyone in this room, whether you actually end up on that task force or not, will be involved,” he said. “Your input, your unique understanding of how it is that we can craft a justice system that lives up to its name” is needed going forward.
With the help of the judicial branch, and the legislative branch as well, Governor Lee is sure that Tennessee can prove to be a national leader in the effort to reform the criminal justice system.
“There’s a national appetite for it and we can do that,” he said. “It’s something I’ve long wanted to be a part of, and now I have the privilege to engage with you in that, so I invite you to be a part of it.”