Syrita Bowen News, Press, Tennessee

Poll Shows Tennesseans Stand Behind Key Planks of Governor’s Agenda; 91% Say Main Goal of Tennessee’s Criminal Justice System Should be Rehabilitation

(Nashville, TN) – Hours before Governor Bill Lee’s first State of the State address, where he’s expected to announce criminal justice reform will be a focus of his first year in office, the Justice Action Network, ACLU-TN, and Right on Crime announced overwhelmingly positive polling results for some critical reforms expected in his address. This survey of 500 registered Tennessee voters, conducted between February 19-21, revealed overwhelming bipartisan voter support for various criminal justice reform measures in Tennessee. Key to this agenda are rehabilitation and second chance legislative measures.

The new poll was conducted by Robert Blizzard of Public Opinion Strategies, one of the nation’s leading public opinion research firms.

Among the key findings in the poll:

  • 91% of voters agree that the main goal of Tennessee’s criminal justice system should be rehabilitating people to become productive, law abiding citizens;
  • 90% of voters favor reducing costly prison time for low-level, non- violent offenders and reinvesting some of those savings to create stronger, more cost-effective community-based supervision programs that increase accountability.
  • 94% of voters say “a person’s risk to public safety” is most important to consider when deciding on release before a trial, and 85% of voters support shifting away from the current cash bail-only system;
  • 88% of voters would like to see the state allocate funding for stronger mental and behavioral health treatment, along with drug treatment for individuals who commit crimes as a result of an addiction or mental health issue.
  • 89% of voters support replacing mandators minimum sentences with sentencing ranges, allowing judges to weigh in on the individual circumstances of each case;
  • 84% of voters agree that individuals with low-level criminal records, who have remained crime-free for a period of time should be allowed to seal or expunge their records.

This poll coincides with Governor Lee’s strong commitment to advancing criminal justice reform in Tennessee, and with lawmakers’ consideration of key legislation, including bail reform. Just last week, Governor Lee announced his plan to address plans to address criminal justice and public safety that includes $10.5 million in funding to improve education in state prisons, $1.7 million in funding for recovery courts, elimination of a $180 expungement fee allowing lower level offenders to expunge their records without burdensome and prohibitive fees, and $15 million in funding for three initiatives that focus on mental health treatment and suicide prevention.

In his rollout of these priorities, Governor Lee said, “We must significantly improve public safety in our state and I believe that starts with our criminal justice system. We will focus on helping individuals to ensure there is a pathway to a productive life beyond crime and ultimately make our state a safer place.”

“The voters of Tennessee have spoken, and their message is crystal clear – it’s time to make Tennessee’s criminal justice system smarter, and provide Tennesseans the public safety return they deserve,” said Holly Harris, Executive Director of the Justice Action Network. “We’re thrilled that Governor Lee and lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are making a strong commitment to criminal justice reform and second chances, and we look forward to working together to make The Volunteer State a national leader in smart on crime legislation.”

“The message from this polling couldn’t be clearer. Tennesseans want a criminal justice system that is accountable, keeping communities safe, treating people fairly and using fiscal resources wisely,” said Hedy Weinberg, Executive Director of the ACLU of Tennessee. “The polling results underscore the overwhelming support, regardless of political party or race, for thoughtful policies that provide for alternatives to incarceration and that ease re-entry so that individuals returning to their communities become engaged citizens which reduces recidivism.”

“Clearly Tennesseans demand more from the criminal justice system beyond just serving as society’s purveyor of punishment,” said Julie Warren, Tennessee State Director of Right on Crime. “The polling data reflects society’s growing understanding that the interests of justice and public safety are served through the balance of accountability and restoration. Tennesseans expect the system to ultimately serve as a means of achieving successful restoration of individuals back into their communities.”

“Tennessee voters want an improved justice system and are overwhelmingly supportive of steps toward reform,” said Rob Blizzard, Partner at Public Opinion Strategies. “Criminal justice is one of the few issue areas left where Republican AND Democratic voters are on the same side.”

“These results didn’t surprise me about what Tennesseans believe, but it’s great to see them in writing,” said Representative Michael Curcio (R-District 69). “91% of Tennesseans believe in rehabilitation. 95% of the people sitting in Tennessee prisons are coming out, and who they’re going to be has as much to do with the programming that we allow them to involve themselves in as it does with their own desire to want to get better. Locking them up and throwing away the key may make you feel better, but it doesn’t do a whole lot for society at large.”

“Four of the five counties that I represent are struggling with jail overpopulation. This is an issue that threatens the financial security of our state,” said Senator Mike Bell (R-District 9). “Men and women are going to come out, and they need some way to transition back to society. I look forward to working with Governor Lee to build better partnerships with the nonprofits and faith-based organizations in our state so we can help these men and women become better members of society and stop this revolving door in our justice system.”

“I’m excited about the continuation of the commitment to criminal justice reform. I think it’s a great time for Tennessee, and I certainly think the poll that was conducted backs that up,” said Senator Raumesh Akbari (D-District 29). “There’s a way to be smart about sentencing and smart on crime. We can still be tough without locking people up and throwing away the key.”