Home » Legislative Update from State Senator Joey Hensley: July 14, 2021

Legislative Update from State Senator Joey Hensley: July 14, 2021

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Crime / Good Samaritan – State lawmakers approved legislation that I sponsored this year which enhances penalties for murder against a person who was acting as a “Good Samaritan.”  This refers to a person who helps, defends, protects, or renders emergency care to a person in need without compensation.  The new law applies to cases when the defendant knew that the person was acting as a Good Samaritan.

Criminal Justice Reform – The General Assembly passed major criminal justice reform legislation this year with approval of key proposals in Governor Bill Lee’s legislative package.  This includes legislation recommended by the Tennessee Criminal Justice Reinvestment Task Force to streamline and appropriately leverage alternatives to incarceration, namely Recovery Courts and felony probation. 

There are currently 30,000 individuals incarcerated for felonies in state prisons and jails, with Tennessee’s corrections budget now costing taxpayers in excess of $1 billion annually.  Almost half of paroled inmates return, making Tennessee’s recidivism rate among the highest in the nation.   Tennessee’s high incarceration rates are fueled by non-violent drug and property offenses which have increased the state’s custody population growth by more than 50 percent since 2009.  The new law expands Tennessee’s successful Recovery Court System, which includes Veterans Courts, Mental Health Courts and Drug Courts for those charged with misdemeanor assaults.  Studies show these courts have an excellent track record for individuals who require specialized and highly accountable treatment.  It also gives judges the discretion to provide treatment for individuals who need it when the facts of their case indicate that a Recovery Court is the best correction option available.  In addition, the new law puts a limit on the amount of time an individual can be sentenced to probation, with the ability for this time to be extended each year for specific case-by-case situations.  The legislation brings the cap for probation down from 10 years to a maximum of eight years, except for defendants who receive multiple convictions.  Judges will have the discretion for crediting time served while on probation. Finally, the legislation standardizes parole revocation practices for technical violations.  Approximately 40 percent of prisoners rearrested go back to prison because they broke their parole due to technical violations, not for committing new crimes.

Criminal Justice / Reentry Success Act — The Reentry Success Act of 2021 was also approved this year.  The new law is a multi-pronged approach to help improve public safety and facilitate positive outcomes for those leaving incarceration.  It establishes mandatory supervision, so all individuals exiting state custody will have a minimum of one-year supervised reentry integration. 

Thirty-seven percent of the current felon population serve their sentences and return to the community without oversight. This legislation addresses this problem by helping these individuals with a pathway to a productive life beyond crime, to ultimately improve public safety by utilizing validated, nationally-tested practices for community supervision.  The mandatory supervision does not create automatic parole eligibility for those who are not eligible, including those convicted of certain particularly violent or egregious crimes and those who are serving life without parole or the death penalty. 

The legislation establishes a presumption of parole release at a person’s release eligibility date or upon a subsequent parole hearing, unless good cause is shown.  Eligible inmates are those who are serving a nonviolent felony offense or a sentence for a Class E or Class D felony offense.  The inmate must have no disciplinary record, be designated low risk for community supervision and must have completed or be enrolled in recommended programing to help ensure successful reentry into society.  If the Board of Parole declines parole, the time period for the next hearing would be set at six years, instead of 10 as provided under current law, unless an inmate is serving a sentence for multiple first-degree murder or facilitation of first-degree murder.

Other key provisions in the new law include:

  • waiving the restricted driver license fee, which research has shown is a barrier to successful reentry;
  • removing the Parole Board’s ability to deny parole to a person who has not attempted to improve their education or vocational skills due to long wait lists for these programs, provided they have reasonable access to them;
  • authorizing and encouraging 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
  • granting limited employer liability to businesses which in good faith hire a parolee convicted of a non-violent criminal offense.

Expunction for Employment – The General Assembly acted this year to help remove barriers for employment and education for Tennesseans with nonviolent or low-level assault offenses on their criminal record.  It allows these individuals to have their record expunged in very limiting circumstances.  The legislation offers those who have made mistakes in their past and paid their debt to society a second chance so they can find housing, employment and provide for their family. Similarly, a new law makes a simple assault committed after July 1, 2000 eligible for consideration of expungement.  The new law does not apply to those convicted of domestic abuse.   

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