Lawmakers Push For Sentencing Reform As Others Stress Rehabilitation

Alex Coleman Staff Writer,
July 21, 2009

Fast Facts:
50,000 Repeat Offenders Live in Shelby County Shelby County D.A. Says Current Laws Are Too Weak Rehabilitation Programs Work To Keep Former Inmates Away From Crime

(Memphis July 21, 2009) On the streets of Memphis and Shelby County, there are more than 50,000 people living here who are considered repeat offenders.

Mid-South law enforcers says these are criminals in-and-out of the jail system not one or two times, but in many cases hundreds, and many are out walking the streets and perhaps even living next to you.

Shelby County District Attorney General Bill Gibbons says the repeat offender problem is an example of weak laws in Tennessee. Gibbons said, “It’s rare to have a serious offender going through the system who doesn’t have a prior record to be perfectly honest with you. We have a flawed system in the state of Tennessee.”

Gibbons says his office and others in local law enforcement have gone to the Tennessee General Assembly to get laws beefed up because current laws don’t have enough bite. Gibbons says right now someone can rob you at gunpoint, get convicted and get an 8 year sentence, but they’re eligible for parole after only two years.

Gibbons says he’s got a problem with that. Gibbons said, “When you look at that kind of system it’s not surprising we have repeat offenders coming through time and time again. For the burglar, it’s an example of the price of doing business because it’s pretty much a slap on the hand until that person gets a very extensive record.”

Tennessee Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris of Collierville serves on the crime commission and operation safe community.

Norris says taxpayers must be ready to pay the price for reform. Norris said, “It’s easy to say lock them up and throw away the key, but they’re not enough taxpayer dollars in Tennessee or anywhere else to achieve that.”

Norris says for the first time in 25 years progress is being made to reform criminal sentencing in Tennessee. He says in the last two years alone laws are on the books to get tough on repeat offenders.

Norris said, “A week ago today the governor signed a bill I sponsored that cracks down on repeat burglars. Those who commit robberies in 24 hours, it used to be the law in the state that it only counted as one offense in 24 hours and now you’re treated as a repeat offender for each offense committed in 24 hours and that became the law a week ago.”

While some laws and lawmakers focus on keeping inmates locked up, there are others working to rehabilitate inmates when they are released from jail. A program called Prison Fellowship tries to help those inmates improve their lives while behind bars and continue to do so once they re-enter society.

Aimee Vance is the Tennessee Field Director for Prison Fellowship. Vance says their program tries to increase the odds of former inmates succeeding in life when they are released.

Vance said, “As I said they come out with nothing. They are set up to fail. If there is a community with open arms for them to have a place to stay or provide them with transportation for a job, we want to set them up for success.”

Prison Fellowship works with churches and community groups to be part of their Prison Care Mentoring program. They help inmates with transitional housing to job placement once they’re released.

Deandre Brown spent two years in prison for identification theft and and bank fraud. He has turned his life around and is now a preacher who says others behind bars can do the same.

Brown said, “I could have easily gone back, but I decided that’s not what I wanted to do. It really bothered me so many people didn’t mind going back because they felt they didn’t have any options, but we want to let them know there is an option. You can do better.”

About two thousand inmates will be released in Shelby County this year alone. Some say without community intervention such as rehabilitation and job training or tougher repeat offender laws such as in states like New York and Florida, some former inmates will likely commit crimes again.

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