OWEN: Will Tennessee Lead The Nation In Criminal Justice Reform?

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Justin Owen President, The Beacon Center of Tennessee
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It’s not often that a conservative politician makes criminal justice reform a top priority. However, just months before being sworn in as Tennessee’s 50th governor, Republican Bill Lee told me, “When I’m elected, we are going to lead the nation in justice reform.”

Considering that Tennessee is among the worst states in the nation for incarceration and crime rates, such a statement was a bold prediction. But because of Lee’s personal track record of supporting the ability of ex-offenders to gain access to good jobs, mentoring many such individuals and serving on the board of a nonprofit that helps men leaving prison become productive, taxpaying citizens, I tended to believe him.

Soon after taking office, Lee began making do on his promise. Barely a month after his inauguration, Lee announced a slate of reforms to Tennessee’s criminal justice system. He sought to boost mental health and substance abuse treatment, particularly through the expansion of recovery courts. He proposed extending education and workforce development opportunities to those in prison. And he proposed eliminating the costly fee for Tennesseans to have their records expunged for long-ago past crimes. He also issued an executive order establishing a task force to study every facet of the state’s criminal justice system and offer recommendations to improve it.

This is just the start, and other red states would be wise to take notice of what Tennessee is doing. Going forward, the governor is expected to tackle even bigger issues, such as Tennessee’s exploding pretrial population, its hodgepodge of inconsistent sentencing laws, as well as additional re-entry reforms. In Tennessee and nationally, there is growing support for these changes. Many people on both sides of the political spectrum support specific reforms like expanded education and workforce opportunities, mental health and substance abuse treatment, and diversion programs for low-level, nonviolent offenders.

In Tennessee, Democratic and Republican lawmakers alike are lining up behind Lee’s agenda, which has passed overwhelmingly as it has moved through the supermajority Republican state legislature. While we see consistent bickering between political parties in D.C. and elsewhere, Tennessee politicians have found a way to work together for the common good and are providing a blueprint for other states that are deeply divided.

Texas has been hailed as a model for going from “worst to first” in reforming its justice system. Texas has already secured many of the reforms sought by Lee after shedding its lock em’ up and throw away the key mantra. As a result, the Texas has gone from needing three new prisons at a cost of $2 billion to closing eight prisons. And most importantly, its crime rate has plummeted. Put simply, Texas now focuses on locking up violent offenders they’re scared of instead of nonviolent offenders they’re just mad at.

It took many years for Texas to overhaul its criminal justice system, but now under Lee’s leadership, Tennessee is poised to leapfrog the Lone Star State in no time flat.

Justin Owen is president and CEO of the Beacon Center of Tennessee, a think tank that advocates for limited government.

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.