Criminal justice reform needs to be a top priority in Tennessee

Brenda Gilmore

Brenda Gilmore

The United States criminal justice system is the largest in the world. In a report of the Sentencing Project to the United Nations Human Rights Committee filed 3 years ago, approximately 7 million individuals were under some form of correctional control in the U.S. Despite making up only 12.3% percent of the population, the report goes on to state that African-American males are six times more likely to be incarcerated than white males and that one out of every three black American males born today can expect to go to prison in his lifetime. Those are shocking statistics, especially when the report goes on to say that “Racial minorities are more likely than white Americans to be arrested; once arrested, they are more likely to be convicted; and once convicted, they are more likely to face stiff sentences.” Those numbers have a devastating effect on the people, the communities and the economy in the state of Tennessee.

As chair of the Tennessee Black Caucus of State Legislators, I can tell you that we have made helping repair those shattered lives and communities a priority in the legislation that we sponsored this year. We sponsored a comprehensive package of bills designed to reform criminal justice laws in the state and give people fair sentencing options and the opportunity to get a fresh start once their debt is paid. The Tennessee Department of Correction estimates that 90% of its inmates will leave prison one day, it’s essential that we provide what is needed to keep them from returning to a life of crime and off the state’s prison rolls. This year, we passed 7 laws with bi-partisan support aimed at helping Tennesseans get their lives on track. Among them:
• The “ban the Box” bill that prevents the state of Tennessee from asking a job applicant about their criminal history early in the interview process.
• A bill that makes it easier to have a criminal record expunged in cases of mistaken identity.
• A bill that creates a taskforce to study new approaches to the administration of juvenile justice.
• And a bill that requires the Department of Labor and Workforce to study new programs designed to provide jobs to aid in the successful reentry of individuals in the workforce who have been convicted of a felony.

With this package, we made real progress this year, but there’s much more work to be done. That’s why the Black Caucus is sponsoring two community forums in the state’s two largest cities to discuss additional criminal justice reform. The first is here in Nashville. It’s an opportunity for us to hear from the public about the real issues. The information that we gather in these forums will help shape next year’s reform package and will give us a road map for helping not just Tennessee’s African-American population, but the entire state.

The Nashville forum will be held this Sunday, June 12th from 3:00-6:00 pm at the Mt. Zion Baptist Church at 1112 Jefferson Street. We are hoping for a big turnout to help us make next year’s legislation even more powerful. Partnering with us will be The Tennessee State Conference NAACP, the Metro Public Defender’s Office, the Davidson County Minority Caucus, the ACLU of Tennessee and Mt. Zion P.S.A.L.M. (Political Social Action Leadership Ministry).

The second will be held July 10th in Memphis at First Baptist Church, 2835 Broad Avenue.

We need your input to help make the state a place of opportunity for all Tennesseans. Please join us this Sunday and be part of the solution.