GOP senators sent message to interim correction commissioner on Community Corrections
Lawmakers likely to file legislation if new commissioner doesn’t reinstate program
Justice A.A. Birch Building in Nashville, in which a Community Corrections program has operated. (Photo: Brad Freeman, Metropolitan Nashville General Sessions Court)
Republican senators upset about the phasing out of Tennessee’s Community Corrections program met last fall with the state’s interim correction prisoner and other officials to make a last-ditch effort at salvaging the intensive effort to keep felons out of prison.
The handful of senators didn’t raise the roof but sent a strong message.
They were rebuffed, though, as interim Correction Commissioner Lisa Helton fairly ignored their request. Those who attended the September gathering say she was dead set against fully reviving the program, which was put in place by lawmakers in 1985 and supported by judges, district attorneys and even public defenders for decades.
“Our stance on it was we were getting a lot of feedback from our judges and our DAs and others from across the state who had Community Corrections that were working very, very well, actually better than anything else. … They did not want to see it go away or be reduced,” says state Sen. Ed Jackson, one of those who urged Helton to reinstate the program.
“It was frustrating that it did pretty much go away in a lot of areas, a lot of communities that depended on it to help their offenders stay out of prison and be overseen,” Jackson adds.
In addition to Jackson, state Sen. Richard Briggs of Knoxville and Sen. Ken Yager, chairman of the Senate Republican Caucus, attended the meeting with Helton and other department officials, sending the message that Community Corrections was getting “positive feedback.”
Instead of taking up their request, the state says it will upgrade its parole and probation program, though it is unclear whether more personnel will be hired.
That statement came after that state more or less replaced the Community Corrections program through a Correction Department contracting process in early 2022, even though lawmakers told prison officials to keep it fully intact a year earlier.
With a request for proposals sent out last January, the Lee Administration made such drastic changes in the services sought that it virtually eliminated the program, which had been serving about 7,000 people statewide.
Groups such as Madison County Community Corrections and Knox County Community Corrections opted not to bid on a new contract. The East Tennessee Human Resource Agency lost services for 18 counties.
It was frustrating that it did pretty much go away in a lot of areas, a lot of communities that depended on it to help their offenders stay out of prison and be overseen.
– Sen. Ed Jackson, R-Jackson
With the Correction Department resisting the senators’ efforts, language could be inserted in legislation this year to bring back the program.
Briggs was bothered, in part, because he felt correction officials more or less eased it out when lawmakers left town for the year.
“By the time we got involved, the contracts had already been let, so there wasn’t going to be very much we could do,” Briggs says.
Sen. Jackson, a Jackson Republican who chairs the Corrections Subcommittee of the State and Local Government Committee, hopes to persuade new Correction Commissioner Frank Strada to give the program a chance to continue. He wants Strada’s input before senators try to force any legislation through the General Assembly.
Department of Correction Spokeswoman Dorinda Carter said in an email statement Tuesday that Helton met with legislators to discuss the expansion of services for Community Corrections agencies “to include providing treatment to justice-involved individuals in underserved areas of the state.” Helton assured legislators the department “had the capacity to supervise the population through risk-based supervision.”
She added that Commissioner Strada was briefed on the program and understood the need for treatment services.
Carter did not answer whether more probation and parole officers would be hired.
Briggs, who said he was told the state would hire more officers, contends judges liked the program because it had someone available to immediately start working with offenders sentenced to Community Corrections rather than prison.
In Nashville, for instance, the program had operated in the Justice A.A. Birch Building for decades until the contract changed its course.
Critics of the change expected legal ramifications that could lead to probationer lawsuits because changes were made through a contractual procedure rather than the Legislature. State law allows judges to sentence offenders to the program, which is markedly different from state probation because of the amount of supervision required. Probations in the program also receive credit toward their sentences, which encourages them to report rather than go to prison.
“What we were hearing from the judges and the DAs is right then and there Community Corrections were always there,” Briggs says. “Sometimes they were and sometimes they weren’t with the parole and probation people.”
Difficulty with staffing parole and probation services caused problems, too, according to Briggs.
The state has downplayed the shift, saying nearly all of its Community Corrections agencies are receiving new contracts, this time for day reporting centers, intensive outpatient treatment and residential treatment.
A request for grant proposals was released in January 2022 and had a May 6 deadline. Of 16 proposals the state received, 15 came from Community Corrections The grants cost a total of $13.8 million and went toward seven day reporting centers, six intensive outpatient treatment programs and one for a residential treatment program.
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