Editor’s Column: Criminal justice reform needs to account for women in the system

April 13, 2021 4:00 am
The Debra K. Johnson Rehabilitation Center, formerly called the Tennessee Prison for Women. (Photo:

The Debra K. Johnson Rehabilitation Center, formerly called the Tennessee Prison for Women. (Photo:

Gov. Bill Lee held a criminal justice roundtable discussion on Wednesday as part of “Second Chance Month.” 

Since 2017, April has been declared “Second Chance Month” to raise awareness about the ongoing consequences of criminal convictions—including the inability to find jobs and housing after release—and to urge the offering of new opportunities to those released from prison. 

Lee has often spoken of his passion for criminal justice reform, an interest born through volunteering in prisons. For several years, Lee served on the board of directors for Men of Valor, whose mission statement says the organization is “committed to winning men in prison to Jesus Christ and discipling them.” 

One doesn’t have to agree with Lee on everything, or even much, to recognize that a program that gives formerly incarcerated individuals the opportunity to make a decent living and find housing without a struggle is a solid proposition. 

According to the Prison Policy Initiative, a nonprofit that focuses on criminal justice reform, Tennessee incarcerates people at the rate of 853 per 100,000, a rate higher than that of 38 states and the entire United States. 

But when I listen to men — and it is mostly men in Tennessee — talk about criminal justice reform, there’s usually an element missing in the conversation: Women. Lee’s roundtable included four men in addition to himself, including former Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Newt Gingrich and former Secretary of Energy Rick Perry, and only one woman. 

Maybe this lack is because women don’t tend to commit violent crimes at the same rate men do. There is only one woman on Tennessee’s death row but as the Prison Policy Initiative reported in 2018, women’s prison population growth in the state has outpaced men’s prison population growth since 2009. 

The report addresses the issue and finds women are punished disproportionately for drug use and for peripheral involvement in drug networks. There are fewer diversion programs open to women than to men so women tend to get tougher sentences for first offenses while men who go to diversion programs return to society faster. And women typically get more severe punishment than men do for the same actions while incarcerated, keeping them in the penal system longer and hurting their chances for parole. 

Logo for The Next Door

And yet, there are few programs available to help women in the criminal justice system. The Next Door, a Nashville-based women’s organization, offers short-term transitional services in Chattanooga through a partnership with the Tennessee Department of Correction. The program is designed to give women tools for successful reentry into “the real world.”

I used to volunteer with another one of the few organizations dedicated to women in prison, Better Decisions, which uses trained volunteers to teach women life skills so they can succeed outside of prison. 

I think of the women I mentored through the program. All of them had trauma or abuse in their background that affected their decision making skills, and being in prison for nonviolent offenses did nothing to help them succeed. 

One woman I mentored was fluent in Spanish and had operated a business providing translation services for Spanish-speakers in courtroom settings in Coffee County. She was arrested for holding drugs for her fiance and served three years in prison. The chance for her to restart her business upon her release was slim, given her own record. 

Another woman, a self-described housewife, sold cocaine in East Tennessee for one month. Two years after she stopped, she was arrested as part of a TBI sting and spent several years in the Tennessee Prison for Women. Her husband divorced her. She lost custody of her children. I vividly remember her aptitude for construction, her ability to figure out solutions to just about any problem and her desire to own her own business, but 12 years after her release, she still has not been able to find a job to match her skills. 

For once, I agree with Gov. Lee that yes indeed, we are badly in need of criminal justice reform. But I ask: where is “Women of Valor”? Where is the emphasis on women by our state’s elected officials? 

As one of America’s early women of influence once urged, so I urge Lee: Don’t forget the ladies.

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Holly McCall
Holly McCall

Holly McCall has been a fixture in Tennessee media and politics for decades. She covered city hall for papers in Columbus, Ohio and Joplin, Missouri before returning to Tennessee with the Nashville Business Journal. Holly brings a deep wealth of knowledge about Tennessee’s political processes and players and likes nothing better than getting into the weeds of how political deals are made.