Criminal Justice Reform in Tennessee

Between 1981 and 2013, Tennessee’s imprisonment rate increased by 256%. This increase in incarcerations triggered a $200 million spike in corrections spending between 2009 and 2013. However spending and the number incarcerations are increasing, crime rates are not falling. In fact, Tennessee was considered the most dangerous state for violent crime in the country. This inconsistency demonstrates a change needs to take place.

Tennessee’s high incarceration numbers can be largely attributed to its recidivism rates: a 2010 study revealed that 46% of offenders that were released that year recidivated within a 3-year period. Among the incarcerated population, low-level drug offenders account for the majority and serve an average of 9 years and 7 months. A state with overcrowded prisons and excessive prison spending should focus its resources and assets on violent offenders, not on low-level, non-violent drug offenders

Another reason for Tennessee’s populous prison system is Tennessee’s “Three-Strikes Law” that administers harsher punishments (life sentences in many cases) to three-time offenders. This law keeps criminals in jail but doesn’t account for good behavior that could warrant early release. Frankly, the very being of this law demonstrates that something needs to be done to reduce recidivism, and it is not re-incarceration. Funds should be allocated to rehabilitative programs that actually to help offenders become productive and law-abiding citizens.

Tennessee’s incarceration rate is 10 percent higher than the national average and has seen a dramatic increase in its female prison population. Tennessee admits roughly 13,000 new prisoners a year, however admissions have decreased by 13 percent since 2009. The majority of the offenses committed by incarcerated persons are non-violent drug offenses.


Former Governor Bill Haslam (R) established a Task Force on Sentencing and Recidivism in 2014, which addressed the growing prison population and recommended strategies for reducing crime.

In 2019 Governor Bill Lee (R) led the Criminal Justice Investment Task Force and released a comprehensive package of data-driven policy recommendations for upcoming legislative sessions. The task force strengthens the response to behavioral health needs, equalizes treatment of those in local jails with those in state prisons, tailors response to different types of offense, increases the likelihood of successful reentry into society, and improves the effectiveness of community supervision.

Unfortunately, these efforts have not been met without obstacles: The Public Safety Act of 2016 was introduced to establish mandatory minimums for individuals convicted 3 or more times with aggravated burglary or drug trafficking, as well as increase penalties for anyone with 3 or more domestic violence convictions. Tennessee needs to refocus its efforts from increasing incarcerations to rehabilitating offenders. Criminal justice reform has proven successful in a plethora of states, and it’s time for Tennessee to join the bandwagon.

Identification of legislation should not be considered an endorsement of support of, or opposition to, such bills.

In May of 2020, ACU wrote a letter to House Judiciary Chair Michael Curcio in support of Drug-Free School Zone Reform legislation. This bill sought to rein in an existing law that requires judges to hand out lengthy mandatory prison sentences to any person caught in possession of drugs within 1,000 feet of a school. While justly intended to discourage drug dealers from peddling poisons to children and students, the broad nature of this law resulted in the labeling of over a quarter of the state's total land area within city limits, as sections of these zones. This cast a wide net that did not have the intended impact, and instead helped fill Tennessee’s prisons to the brim while ruining lives, breaking up families, and wasting countless taxpayer dollars. Read the letter here.

It is Time for Meaningful Criminal Justice Reform in Tennessee by David Safavian

In April 2021, the ACU testified in favor of multiple criminal justice reforms proposed by Governor Lee. Read the testimony here

ACU Letter Opposing Tennessee's House Bill 2656 and Senate Bill 2248