Members of the Tennessee Black Caucus of State Legislators and the NAACP State Conference hosted a town hall meeting on October 29 to discuss mass incarceration and it’s impact on the community. The meeting was open to the public in the Legislative Plaza.
The daylong symposium focused on the results of mass incarceration in overall society, specifically in the African American community. Tennessee Black Caucus chairwoman Brenda Gilmore mentioned that the meeting would allow state lawmakers to gather facts, in order to prepare legislation for next year’s session—meaning they’re considering legislative proposals that would revive a sentencing commission, as well as loosen sentencing guidelines for drug offenders in certain cases. The meeting also examined President Barack Obama’s recommendation concerning prisons and Gov. Bill Haslam’s Task Force recommendation on incarceration.
David Raybin, attorney (defense lawyer and former prosecutor), who was a member of the sentencing commission that was dissolved in 1995, was in attendance.
“There are sentencing commissions all over the United States,” Raybin told reporters outside of the meeting. “Essentially what a commission does is look at sentencing issues, problems, and make recommendations to the Legislature with specific legislation.”
Raybin has been a vocal advocate of the commission, a panel he says is needed.
“You constantly need to tweak and respond to criminal justice issues,” said Raybin.
The caucus is considering legislation proposed by Raybin that would change the sentencing guidelines for offenders convicted of selling drugs near schools. Currently, there is no parole for such a conviction. Raybin pointed to the case of a 31-year old man sentenced to a mandatory minimum of eight years in prison for allegedly having almost three grams of cocaine—a third of a mile from a school. Raybin stated that the sentence was unfair, because the arrest occurred at night, when children were out of school and nowhere around. His proposal would make such offenders eligible for parole, because children were not involved.
David was only one of many speakers the caucus would ultimately hear from throughout the day. District Attorney Glenn Funk told lawmakers that 30% of inmates in the Davidson County Jail have health issues.
“We’ve got to distinguish mental health issues from violent crimes,” said Funk. Funk also supports reviving the sentencing commission.
Other speakers who took the podium included: Hedy Weinberg (director of the Tennessee ACLU), Jeannie Alexander (former TDOC chaplain and director of No Exceptions) and Eric Alexander, who received a 50 year sentence as a juvenile. He served 10 of those years.
Brenda Gilmore ‘ditto-ed’ Funk’s sentiments, stating that the caucus is also considering proposals that would provide alternative sentencing for individuals with drug or mental health problems.
Gilmore also believes sentencing guidelines should be loosened for some nonviolent crimes, particularly those involving drug offenders.
“Those instances where we’re putting young people in prison who made a mistake early in life, we want to take a second look at that,” said Gilmore.