Editorial: For criminals, more jail time isn't always the best answer

Aug. 18, 2014 @ 11:31 AM

Short sentences for heinous crimes, early releases and paroles for good behavior are often blamed on overcrowded jails —whether locally, statewide or even across the nation.

It's a fact that nearly half Tennessee's 109 jails have more inmates than beds, according to a 2013 story from the Tennessean in Nashville.

"Some (are) holding two or three times as many inmates as they are certified for," the paper reported. "Detainees in these counties find themselves sleeping on floors in common areas, using portable showers and toilets brought in so jails remain legal to operate. They're subject to be shipped off to other counties when the fire marshal comes calling or the floor space runs out."

But the lack of space isn't the state's biggest problem when it comes to inmates.

There's an incredible rate of recidivism among those arrested, which helps fuel overcrowding. Most people checking in for stays have done time before.

And without question, one of the primary contributing factors for such high rates of recidivism in Tennessee is addiction.

Addiction often changes law-abiding people into shadows of their former selves, requiring small-time crimes to finance their next fix.

It may be time for the state to look at some aggressive steps to provide addicted inmates not just a cell, but a way to break the cycle.

When he was reelected to the State Legislature earlier this month, Sevierville attorney Rep. Andrew Farmer said as much.

“I’m in court every day, and here in Sevier County, 99 percent of all thefts go back to prescription pills,” he said. “We’re going to have to do something, and focus more on rehabilitation than incarceration.”

Just last week, Gov. Bill Haslam announced the formation of the Governor’s Task Force on Sentencing and Recidivism as part of the administration’s overall effort to reduce crime and improve public safety.

The Governor’s Public Safety Subcabinet is currently partenering with the Vera Institute of Justice, a New York-based independent nonprofit national research and policy organization, to review sentencing and correction policies and practices.

“We have put a strong emphasis on addressing some of our state’s toughest safety challenges head on, and the Public Safety Subcabinet is doing great work,” Haslam said. “This task force is a next step in making sure we have a comprehensive approach to public safety in Tennessee. I am grateful to the Tennesseans who have agreed to dedicate their time to these issues, and I look forward to their recommendations.”

According to the state, the current sentencing structure in Tennessee has been in place for more than 20 years.

"An examination will ensure that the structure is in line with the variety and severity of criminal behavior," the governor's office said in a press release. "Establishing an effective set of sentencing laws can resolve inconsistencies and avoid discrepancies that compromise public safety."

Many prescription drug addicts started out with legitimate uses for the pills, either following surgery or prescribed for bona fide chronic pain.

For us and them, the answer to their problems isn't more beds in our jails. It's more help. The governor's task force should consider this when making policy recommendations and suggestions.