Legislative Update from State Senator Joey Hensley: Criminal Justice Reform


   The first session of the 112th General Assembly ended on May 5th after a very successful year. Criminal Justice reform was one of the main focuses of this year. The 2021 session will be remembered for historic “tough on crime – smart on crime” legislation. This includes a bill which passed during the final week to ensure certain violent sex offenders serve 100 percent of their sentences, as well as numerous bills addressing human trafficking and providing aid to crime victims. It also includes criminal justice reform measures that aim to reduce recidivism and make Tennessee’s communities safer. 

   Truth in Sentencing –Senate Bill 717 ensures certain violent or sexual offenders serve 100 percent of the sentence imposed by a judge or jury. It affects offenses that historically target women and children, such as rape, sexual battery, continuous sexual abuse of a child, sexual battery by an authority figure, incest, promoting prostitution, aggravated child abuse, domestic assault, aggravated sexual exploitation of a minor and trafficking for a commercial sex act. While the legislation does not remove judicial discretion, it ensures that parole or probation are not options for those found guilty of crimes that fall into these categories. The person will still be permitted to earn eligible credits which increase their privileges, reduce their security classification and any others which do not reduce the sentence imposed on them by the court. The average sentence currently imposed on a person convicted of rape is 7.05 years, while only 4.64 years are generally served. Similarly, the average sentence for a person convicted of sexual battery is 3.26 years, with generally 2.41 years served.

   Expunction for Employment — The full Senate acted to remove barriers for employment and education for Tennesseans with nonviolent or low-level assault offenses on their criminal record. Senate Bill 675 offers those who have made mistakes in their past and paid their debt to society a second chance. Under current law, many individuals who have previously been convicted for a single nonviolent offense are defined by this one mistake and can struggle to find housing, employment and provide for their family. This bill will allow these individuals to have their record expunged in very limiting circumstances. Similarly, Senate Bill 707 seeks to remove barriers for those seeking employment or technical education who have committed a simple assault. This bill, which does not apply to domestic violence offenders, will make a simple assault committed after July 1, 2000 eligible for consideration of expungement.

    Criminal Justice Reform — Senate Bill 767 gives judges the discretion to provide treatment to Recovery Court when the facts indicate it is the best correction option available. The legislation brings the cap for probation down from 10 years to a maximum of eight years, except for defendants who receive multiple convictions. It also gives judges the discretion for crediting time served while on probation and standardizes parole revocation practices for technical violations.

   Criminal Justice / Reentry Success Act —  Senate Bill 768 establishes mandatory supervision; establishes a presumption of parole release at a person’s release eligibility date or upon a subsequent parole hearing under certain good behavior circumstances, unless good cause is shown; requires the Department of Correction to pay an accreditation stipend to eligible counties to encourage implementation of evidenced-based reentry programs in local jails; authorizes and encourages community colleges and Tennessee Colleges of Applied Technology (TCATs) to partner with local government to provide education workforce development programs for people held in local correction facilities; and grants limited employer liability to businesses who in good faith hire a parolee convicted of a non-violent criminal offense. When the Board of Parole declines parole, the time period for the next hearing would be set at six years in most cases, instead of 10 as provided under current law.

    Juvenile Justice Facilities / Seclusion — Senate Bill 383 defines and clarifies seclusion so that it cannot be used for any other reason than an up to two-hour temporary response to behavior that threatens immediate harm to others. The facility administrator may review the seclusion and authorize an additional two-hour period if appropriate but will be prohibited from authorizing more than two subsequent, consecutive periods of seclusion or more than six total hours within a 24-hour period.