State reviewing Community Corrections amid losses spurred by changes in contract process

By: - June 28, 2022 7:01 am
(Photo: Darrin Klimek/Getty Images)

(Photo: Darrin Klimek/Getty Images)

Community Corrections groups across the state are reeling after the Tennessee Department of Correction made a power move to take over intensive felony supervision through contract bids, skipping over the Legislature.

“I think it’s gonna adversely affect Community Corrections,” forcing reductions in staff and services offered to the courts over the last 35-plus years, says Michael Walton, operator of Westate Corrections Network in Union City and president of the Tennessee Community Corrections Association.

Lawmakers rejected a move by Gov. Bill Lee in 2021 to eliminate the 37-year-old Community Corrections program as he passed a criminal justice reform package. After the Legislature staved off that change, the Lee Administration asked Community Corrections agencies to start providing more detailed data on their programs. 

But with a new request for grant proposals sent out in January, the Lee Administration changed the services sought for Community Corrections so drastically that it virtually eliminated the program, which serves about 7,000 people statewide, lawmakers and directors say.

In fact, some groups such as Madison County Community Corrections and Knox County Community Corrections opted not to bid on a new contract to provide intensive supervision. East Tennessee Human Resource Agency also lost services for 18 counties.

Under the program the Legislature adopted in 1985, these groups and others across Tennessee work with felons who either don’t qualify for probation because their sentences were too long or they flunked probation and likely were headed to prison. Judges sentence convicts to Community Corrections as a last-gasp effort to keep them functioning in society.

In 2021, the Tennessee Legislature staved off a move by Gov. Bill Lee to eliminate the Community Corrections program, which diverts felony offenders from prison in favor of community based supervision and treatment programs to reduce criminal behavior. Now the T4ennessee Department of Corrections has made an end run to bypass lawmakers.

The program is budgeted at $13.8 million, but in spite of the contract changes, the state isn’t projecting a savings. 

Walton and other Community Corrections directors predict a range of problems the state didn’t foresee. 

For instance, thousands of probationers will probably return to court to find out where they go next, “which will just clog the court dockets up for really no reason,” Walton says.

Terry Bell, executive director of Madison County Community Corrections, expects an array of legal ramifications, likely to lead to probationer lawsuits, because the changes were done through a contractual procedure rather than the Legislature.

Bell points out Community Corrections and sentencing procedures remain in state law, enabling judges to place offenders in the program, which is markedly different from state probation because of the amount of supervision required. Probationers also receive credit that counts against their sentences, which encourages them to report.

His county-run organization decided not to submit a bid because the state completely changed the contract requirements, instead seeking services other groups already provide, such as day reporting centers, outpatient treatment and resident treatment.

District attorney generals and judges don’t agree with this sweeping change, and neither do public defenders, he says.

“I think it’s a control issue,” Bell adds. 

Questions could have been addressed if the program had gone through the Legislature. “But because it didn’t, this is an end-run to get their way without the blessing of the Legislature,” Bell says.

A fresh look?

Since lawmakers found out the program was on the verge of extinction, they’ve been lobbying the Department of Correction to reconsider.

In fact, the interim commissioner of Tennessee’s Department of Correction, Lisa Helton, is reviewing the loss of Community Corrections programs that deal with probationers in East and West Tennessee after two key providers failed to have contracts renewed, according to state Sen. Richard Briggs, a Knoxville Republican who chairs the Senate State & Local Government Committee.

Because of major changes in the bid document, Knox County Community Corrections didn’t bid on a new contract, but East Tennessee Human Resource Agency does want contracts for other counties in the region, Briggs says.

The move to change the Community Corrections program raises practical and legal questions, has left operators and directors in a quandary, and the state has been loath to answer questions. Some agencies could continue operating under three-month extensions, but those involved say the transition has been handled poorly.

Briggs and Sen. Ed Jackson, R-Jackson, a member of the Legislature’s correction committee, both raised concerns in recent days about the potential loss of services to probationers.

Even though the slack is to be picked up by the Department of Correction, lawmakers have heard complaints from judges, district attorneys and public defenders for years about the inability of the Department of Correction’s probation services to work effectively. 

Madison County Community Corrections supervises about 700 offenders, about 400 of whom actively report while about 300 are in some form of treatment or are under warrant status.

“We’ve had good audits. We’ve had good results over the years. We’re not just a hang ’em high, try to send ’em to the pen as soon as possible,” Bell says, adding the organization also runs the drug and alcohol recovery court and misdemeanor programs.

Even after Madison County Community Corrections “expressed its content quite vehemently,” the state moved forward with changes, Bell says.

“The Lee Administration has thrown a hand grenade into that stability,” said Sen. Jeff Yarbro, D-Nashville, of the move to take oversight from Community Corrections. (Photo: John Partipilo)
“The Lee Administration has thrown a hand grenade into that stability,” said Sen. Jeff Yarbro, D-Nashville, of the move to take oversight from Community Corrections. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Still, his agency signed a 90-day contract extension to continue offering services with a “skeleton crew.”

Some lawmakers worry those who can’t receive the necessary oversight in these regions could wind up in prison, instead of remaining under court-ordered supervision and trying to put their lives back together.

Briggs confirms that he and Jackson talked to Helton and says she is going to review the matter.

“I think she understands TDOC has a problem,” Briggs says.

Sen. Jeff Yarbro, leader of the Senate Democratic Caucus, believes this is a continuation of the state’s effort to kill the Community Corrections program a year ago when the Legislature pushed back and kept it intact.

“What I’m concerned about now is that the governor’s doing an end-around on the Legislature and trying to effectively eliminate Community Corrections through a government contract process,” says Yarbro, a Nashville attorney. “It should offend every legislator who stood up to the governor that they’ve been treated so dismissively by the governor.”

Community Corrections offers Tennessee residents a “stable” criminal justice system, he adds. 

“The Lee Administration has thrown a hand grenade into that stability,” Yarbro says.

State wants new direction

The state is downplaying the move, saying nearly all of its Community Corrections agencies are receiving new contracts. This time, though, they’re for day reporting centers, intensive outpatient treatment and residential treatment, which are quite a bit different from felony supervision.

Department of Correction spokeswoman Dorinda Carter says in an email statement responding to questions that the state’s request for grant proposals “did not eliminate Community Corrections.” She notes the request for bids focused on increasing treatment resources for people in underserved areas. The request for grant proposals was released in January with a May 6 deadline.

Of 16 proposals the state received, 15 were from current community corrections providers, and 14 grants will be made, according to Carter. Madison County and Knox County Community Corrections didn’t submit proposals, and a third group, Project Whatever It Takes, submitted late and was disqualified.

The expectation is that our state will see even stronger outcomes through these additional treatment opportunities in collaboration with Community Corrections.

– Dorinda Carter, Tennessee Department of Corrections

The grants, which total $13.8 million, are going for seven day reporting centers, six intensive outpatient treatment programs and one for a residential treatment program, and the organizations will receive more compensation because fewer grants are being made.

Officials have not been able to say how many probationers could be affected by the change, but Carter says the number who “transition” to the Department of Correction “represent a small fraction of our overall population and will be spread across several districts and offices, which minimizes the impact.”

“While Community Corrections agencies have not specifically engaged in evidence-based practice strategies in supervision nor maintained the high-risk caseloads envisioned by the 1985 enactment, a significant strength of the agencies is their community collaborations for treatment and programming,” Carter says in her statement. “As their proposals reflect, the agencies have capitalized on those relationships to build models for (day reporting centers) and (intensive outpatient treatment) programs across the state.”

The state contends increased treatment and “risk-based supervision” improve results.

“The expectation is that our state will see even stronger outcomes through these additional treatment opportunities in collaboration with Community Corrections,” Carter says.

East Tennessee Human Resource Agency, however, says hundreds of people may be required to go to prison because they’re ineligible for probation or they will be supervised by the state, which has more relaxed and infrequent supervision, according to a copy of an email obtained by Tennessee Lookout.

She lives! Rep. Gloria Johnson, D-Knoxville: (Photo: John Partipilo)
Rep. Gloria Johnson, D-Knoxville (Photo: John Partipilo)

The agency sent the email to officials last week saying the Community Corrections program it has administered for 35 years is being eliminated June 30. It submitted proposals for an intensive outpatient program with supervision and another for a day reporting center in Hamblen and Blount counties. But even though it scored the highest in the state on both proposals, it was awarded only the grant for the day reporting center.

No organization was awarded a contract for services in 18 East Tennessee counties, even though they’re in distressed areas with rampant drug abuse.

The agency also said it will have to fire 15 to 20 employees at the end of June because it didn’t receive the grant for the intensive outpatient program.

State Rep. Gloria Johnson, D-Knoxville, sat in on a call last week dealing with Community Corrections and the potential for “non-probatable” felons being sent to prison.

At least one public defender raised the idea that people who are out of prison and “doing well” could be locked up again, according to Johnson.

“You have folks who are out of jail or prison who are doing well and staying off drugs, and (Community Corrections is) really able to keep a close eye on that,” Johnson says. “The feeling is when that goes to a state-level person that they don’t see nearly enough, we are not gonna see that kind of improvement that we’re seeing with Community Corrections.”

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Sam Stockard
Sam Stockard

Sam Stockard is a veteran Tennessee reporter and editor, having written for the Daily News Journal in Murfreesboro, where he served as lead editor when the paper won an award for being the state's best Sunday newspaper two years in a row. He has led the Capitol Hill bureau for The Daily Memphian. His awards include Best Single Editorial from the Tennessee Press Association.