Tennessee lawmakers on the Joint Ad Hoc Committee to Review the Adequacy of the Supervision, Investigation, and Release of Criminal Defendants review prison release and sentencing policies at October 6 hearing (Photo: John Partipilo)
State lawmakers serving on a new committee studying Tennessee’s prison release policy are running into a harsh reality: Rehabilitating violent prisoners isn’t easy or cheap.
Cleotha Abston Henderson, who is charged with raping and murdering Memphis kindergarten teacher Eliza Fletcher, committed his first major crime when he was 16, kidnapping and robbing attorney Kemper Durand.
Over the next 20 years in prison, he committed 56 infractions, including possession of a deadly weapon, and refused to attend any classes that would acclimate him to the community on his release.
Yet he still got out of prison early after receiving “good time” credit for roughly 1,100 days. Some legislators were irritated this week – to say the least – that Henderson was released in spite of his recalcitrance.
“I’m wondering if there’s any inmate that doesn’t receive their 15% for good time,” state Rep. Andrew Farmer, a member of the Joint Ad Hoc Committee to Review the Adequacy of the Supervision, Investigation, and Release of Criminal Defendants, told Department of Correction officials in a Wednesday hearing.
That could be the longest name for a legislative study panel in state history, and it sort of mirrors the problem. These people are trying to solve something that, based on much of Wednesday’s testimony, stems from generations of childhood abuse and violence. Many of the state’s violent offenders think rape, fighting and murder are the norm. They aren’t part of a family that goes to church on Sunday mornings, eats supper together at 6 o’clock every day and sits down to watch Hee Haw or The Jeffersons on Saturday evenings.
Correction officials couldn’t explain exactly how Henderson got out early in spite of his obstinate nature, saying he must have slipped through the cracks. Prisoners can get time off for avoiding disciplinary problems, holding a job and staying out of segregation, among other things. Even throwing a paper wad at a correction officer can be a strike against them.
Farmer, a Sevierville Republican and attorney by trade, contends this week’s testimony shows that Henderson’s early release was “unacceptable,” based on the number of violations he committed. He also says rehabilitative classes should be mandatory regardless of whether an inmate is eligible for parole.
Farmer and the Republican supermajority supported a truth-in-sentencing bill this year that Gov. Bill Lee allowed to become law without his signature. It remains a sticking point between the governor and many lawmakers.
The state’s most violent offenders will be required to serve 100% of their sentences under the new law; other offenders must serve 85% of their sentences, rendering some of the questions moot, except for those already doing time.
But lawmakers such as Senate Minority Leader Jeff Yarbro are leery of locking people up and throwing away the key.
“You can’t just have indefinite incarceration. We have to think about how to ensure the time inmates are in custody makes it less likely they’ll re-offend and not more likely they’ll re-offend,” Yarbro says. “It is really difficult to make the case that an extra thousand days would’ve made the difference between rehabilitation and criminal behavior for someone who was in prison for 20 years already.”
The question, Yarbro says, is whether the state is using that time to make sure someone leaves prison less dangerous than they were when they arrived.
In Henderson’s case, he committed a more violent crime 20 years later than he did when he kidnapped Durand.
Under the new law, he would still be in prison. But many people believe that only would have delayed the inevitable.
How do you handle someone who refuses to be rehabilitated? Once their sentence is up, even if they don’t compile time off for good behavior, the state has to let them out.
Thus, they’re on the streets with no place to live, no job, no money and few, if any, good prospects.
Republican Sen. Ed Jackson of Jackson, who has visited every prison in the state, agrees that more money needs to be put into the prison system to provide mental health counselors and teachers who can help steer inmates onto a new path. The Legislature gave officers a 37% pay increase last year, yet staffing shortages are the norm.
“I think there’s a willingness to do that, but finding them and getting counselors that’ll go into the correctional system is a big problem,” Jackson says.
With the speakers of both the House and Senate appointing this panel, look for some sort of legislation in 2023 to either make it harder for people to get out of prison or easier to rehabilitate them while they’re inside, or both.
Jackson and others point out that catching problems at the juvenile level is critical. Henderson was only 16 when he was arrested for kidnapping and robbery.
In order to do that, though, the state has to solve its own problems at places such as the Wilder Youth Development Center, which is described as dysfunctional.
Ninety percent of the youths at Wilder are Black and 70% are from Shelby County, like Henderson. A report by Disability Rights Tennessee contends that the Department of Children’s Services uses Wilder as a sort of dumping ground for disabled teens. The State Comptroller found that DCS had failed to correct “harmful practices” of those in its custody at Wilder.
Not only did the state fail to keep up with the progress of teens at Wilder, it didn’t follow up on reviews of three Wilder employees who were involved in 10 or more investigations, according to reports.
Legislators promise to keep delving into this age-old problem.
But one thing is certain: With 72% of those released from prison taking mental health medication, the state needs to do more than give them a 30-day supply of pills and a list of social services.
As Democratic state Rep. Antonio Parkinson queried, “What happens on day 31 when the meds run out?”
The answer: Tennessee connects them with other resources. More than likely, they’re connecting with their old posse.
No rubber stamp?
Moments before the Tennessee Public Charter School Commission overruled Metro Nashville on two new charter schools, Commissioner Eddie Smith assured the audience of three that the board is no “rubber stamp” committee.
Reviewing applications and recommendations is akin to reading “Gone With the Wind” three times, he contends. Nobody envies that.
Regardless of reading skills, the governor-appointed board is accused of doing Bill Lee’s will to spread charter schools across the state, which is not winning friends and influencing people. It was fine as long as charters were in Memphis and Nashville. But now that they’re knocking on doors in Murfreesboro, Clarksville and Jackson, the reception is a little chillier.
Thus, based on the recommendation of Executive Director Tess Stovall, the commission approved KIPP Southeast Nashville College Prep Academy elementary and middle schools, overruling the decision by the Metro Nashville Public Schools Board of Education to reject them.
The school district, which didn’t put up a fight at the commission meeting Wednesday, said in a letter that it has spent money to provide classroom space in the Antioch-Cane Ridge area and other charter schools are there already.
Charter schools are considered part of the public school system, but they are run by private entities and receive state and local funding, cutting into the amount that goes to traditional public schools.
But KIPP Executive Director Randy Dowell, who took the time to speak at the meeting, pointed out the operator has seven schools in the district, most of which scored high on state testing, and that 1,500 applications have been made for 250 seats, proof that parents are longing to get into KIPP.
In her recommendation, Stovall noted that she has “great confidence” in KIPP’s academic and financial plan and the potential for successful schools.
Commissioner Wendy Tucker pointed out she worked with Dowell when the early KIPP schools opened and was impressed with their “rigor” and willingness to serve all students. They drew support from former Nashville Mayor Karl Dean, which is always good for Democratic backing.
Created in 2019, the state commission came under greater scrutiny amid uproar over Hillsdale-affiliated American Classical Education and secretly-recorded comments by President Larry Arnn that teachers are educated “in the dumbest parts of the dumbest colleges in the country” and that he was out to prove in Tennessee that anyone could be a teacher. Maybe he should ask himself whether anyone wants to be a teacher anymore.
Amid growing rancor, American Classical withdrew three appeals late last week, claiming parents wouldn’t have time to travel to Nashville to testify and that it didn’t have time to answer staff concerns.
That certainly shortened Wednesday’s meeting and kept protesters at bay.
Proving it’s no rubber stamp – though Hillsdale wasn’t on the agenda – the board turned down an appeal by Oxton Academy Charter High School, whose application was rejected by Clarksville Montgomery County School Board.
Stovall also gave Oxton a bad recommendation, saying it didn’t meet state standards and fell short in several areas, including proposals for English Language Learners and disabled students.
Commission spokesman Chase Ingle said afterward Stovall’s recommendation for American Classical – if it hadn’t withdrawn – was not complete and, therefore, didn’t qualify as a public record.
It’s hard to believe someone as conscientious as Stovall wouldn’t have her recommendations prepared less than a week before a hearing. But, hey, I usually don’t tell my wife I’m going to play golf until the day before the fellows and I head out.
Charter school opponents across the state might be breathing a sigh of relief in the wake of Hillsdale’s pullout. And, make no mistake, it is Hillsdale and Arnn, no matter what name they put on it.
But just to ensure everyone is prepared for what’s on the horizon, Commissioner Terence Patterson, a board member for KIPP Memphis, told his colleagues at the end of the meeting that charters aren’t just for Memphis, Nashville and Chattanooga but that the “charter school model is for students in all areas.” He didn’t recuse himself from Wednesday’s KIPP votes, although one commissioner will have to recuse himself at the next vote.
In short, this group is charter-friendly, so get ready, because they’re coming to your school district soon.
Not so good news for ACT
The college admissions testing company that high school students love to hate just broke the lead on its second No. 2 pencil. Remember, you had to have two pencils ready to fill in bubbles in case the first one snapped.
A federal judge in September dismissed ACT Inc.’s lawsuit against Worldwide Interactive Network after a jury found that ACT owed its rival $5.6 million in counterclaim damages, according to news reports.
U.S. District Court Judge Travis McDonough of Chattanooga oversaw the end of the lawsuit in which ACT claimed its former partner infringed on terms it used for workplace tests.
Worldwide responded with its own claims, and the jury decided that ACT should pay $218,000 for false advertising and $5.4 million for intentional interference in business relationships, according to a report.
In addition, the jury declined to side with ACT on claims of unfair competition, false advertising and copyright infringement by Worldwide Interactive.
The two companies ultimately requested dismissal of the lawsuit with prejudice, saying they reached a settlement, the details of which were not disclosed.
Readers might remember that in February state Sen. Brian Kelsey sponsored legislation forcing Tennessee universities to require students to take ACT or SAT entrance exams. Word has it ACT Inc. could be hurting financially because universities across the nation are dropping the test.
Kelsey, who is leaving the Legislature while under federal indictment for alleged campaign finance fraud, accused the University of Tennessee of trying to be “woke,” situating itself similarly to Harvard and no longer requiring the test.
Eventually, he dropped the bill.
But UT, which had held up on entrance testing requirements during the COVID-19 pandemic, is requiring students to take a college entrance exam.
The ACT is dying out, however, in part because of criticism that it’s culturally biased and doesn’t determine whether a student can excel academically.
It’s not all about culture. Back when teachers still wrote on chalkboards, some students might have partied too hard the night before the test.
I know people who squeaked through the ACT, earned UT-Knoxville degrees and are doing extremely well. Heck, half the battle is avoiding dropout status on The Hill.
The Strip can be awfully inviting for freshmen who want to “party like it’s 1999. Alright”
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