The 2017 legislative session saw Tennessee Democrats push a slate of bills to reform Tennessee’s criminal justice system. Tennessee Democrats know the fight is far from over but they are proud of the successes achieved this session when it came to fighting for justice for all Tennesseans.
“Tennessee’s Democrats stepped up big time this year with a number of bills,” said Senate Minority Leader Lee Harris. “Our hope is that these bills will increase fairness by easing ex-offender reentry, reexamining our failed drug policies, and increasing government transparency.”
Tennessee Democrats know that successful ex-offender reentry is a cornerstone to criminal justice reform. Studies show that ex-offenders who obtain employment are less likely to commit crimes putting them back in jail.
“We want ex-offenders who have served their time to get a fresh start as they strive to obtain employment,” said Rep. Raumesh Akbari. “That’s why I sought to lower the expunction fee from $350 to $180, allow ex-offenders with two offenses to petition for an expungement, and allow juveniles to expunge their records at no cost to the individual. These three pieces of legislation are a good start to help people get their lives back on track and get back to work."
Freshman Democrat Dwayne Thompson passed a bill to help non-violent ex-offenders obtain employment. “Legislation such as this helps non-violent ex-felons to become productive citizens, reduces the chances of recidivism, reduces the high costs of incarceration and makes our communities a little safer from crime,” said Rep. Thompson. The bill was carried in the Senate by Senate Minority Leader Lee Harris.
Reforming the Tennessee Board of Parole was a focus this session. First, Democrats sought to change the composition of the board to add professional expertise in the areas of corrections, probation and parole. The bill passed and was carried by Rep. Antonio Parkinson and Sen. Lee Harris. “When it comes to deciding the fate of inmates seeking to reenter society, I think it makes sense to ensure that at least one Board member has some relevant experience in the areas of corrections, probation and parole,” said Rep. Parkinson.
A Nashville area man’s wrongful incarceration led to the passage of a bill. Robert Polk was put back in prison for a parole violation based on a false accusation. Rep. Parkinson saw this injustice as an opportunity for a bill to expedite parole hearings for parolees who are in prison on false charges. “If you are back in prison due to a false charge, you deserve a hearing, and fast,” said Rep. Parkinson. “This bill forces the Board of Parole to meet as soon as reasonably possible to grant needed relief. Justice delayed is after all, justice denied.” The bill passed and was carried in the Senate by Sen. Lee Harris.
Tennessee’s drug policies are failing. That’s evident by the opioid epidemic and the millions spent on incarcerating non-violent drug offenders.
Senate Democratic Caucus Chairman Jeff Yarbro and Rep. Harold Love brought a bill to increase the penalty for the sale or manufacture of the opioid fentanyl. “Fentanyl is ravaging our communities, both urban and rural,” said Rep. Love. “The opioid epidemic must be addressed and we have to take a strong stance with emerging drugs like fentanyl hitting the streets.” Sen. Yarbro stated, “The opioid epidemic is a disaster for communities across the state, and it's past time the legislature does something about it. We can't task force our way out of this problem, but we can make sure that there are serious consequences for selling a drug that truly destroys lives.”
Democratic House and Senate Leadership teamed up on a bill to address Tennessee’s opioid crisis. The bill would expand limited criminal immunity for those calling for help when experiencing a drug overdose. The immunity only applies to misdemeanors like simple possession and paraphernalia.
“According to the Department of Health, 1,415 Tennesseans died in 2015 from overdoses,” said Sen. Harris. “We have an epidemic on our hands and we need to be in search of common sense solutions. This bill says to Tennesseans that it is okay to call for help in your time of need.” The bill advanced through House committees but failed on the Senate floor.
Tennessee’s drug-free school zone law has remained unchanged since its introduction in 1995. The law provides for some of the harshest sentencing enhancements in all of Tennessee law. “Tennessee has limited resources to fight crime,” said Rep. Brenda Gilmore. “The way our drug-free school zone law is written, most places in urban and rural communities are located in a zone. As a result, we are spending millions to incarcerate non-violent offenders arrested for doing a deal with an adult informant in the middle of the night with no kids around.” A bill to reduce the size of the drug-free school zone advanced out of House subcommittee but failed in Senate committee. Rep. Gilmore and Sen. Harris intend on bringing the bill back in 2018.
For nearly 50 years TBI records have been confidential. This has included all records of TBI investigations around officer-involved shooting deaths. This year that changed. Rep. G.A. Hardaway and Sen. Harris passed a pro-transparency bill to make all TBI records around officer-involved shootings open to the public.
“As you know, this matter is of particular interest to those of us in Memphis,” said Representative G.A. Hardaway. “We have to be able to trust that the process works, and for that to happen, the process has to be transparent. The fair, equitable administration of justice is enhanced by the increased transparency created by this bipartisan legislation.”
"I would submit that there is no greater government action than the taking of a life and no more legitimate public interest in government-produced information," Senator Lee Harris said. "We shouldn’t keep these records confidential from the public after the investigation and prosecution are concluded."