Unlikely bedfellows seek justice reform in Tennessee

Robert Houk • Oct 30, 2016 at 12:00 AM

It’s popular these days to talk about the lack of civility in our political process.

Elected officials refuse to reach across the partisan aisle to get anything accomplished.

Candidates for office call their opponents liars and crooks, while their loyal supporters shout angry taunts at anyone who dare question their “facts.”

In the meantime, independent-minded voters just shake their heads in disgust. (Or place bumper stickers on their cars that read: “Giant Meteor 2016 — Just end it already.”)

Yes, all this vitriol can be quite discouraging. That’s why I was pleased to read in September about a very diverse association of organizations that are getting together to create the Tennessee Coalition for Sensible Justice.

This unlikely partnership includes the Beacon Center, a libertarian think tank based in Nashville, the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee, the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce and the Tennessee Association of Goodwills. The idea behind the coalition is to champion criminal justice reforms that will better the public’s safety, promote rehabilitation of offenders and help them to re-enter society — all while saving tax dollars.

Officials with the Beacon Center say their think tank (which is thought to be funded by the Koch brothers) strives to reach across partisan and ideological lines to push it’s agenda in the state General Assembly. In the past, the organization has joined hands with the ACLU to oppose “policing for profit,” a term given to the practice of law enforcement agencies seizing cash or property without due process.

The Beacon Center has been active in voicing its views on a number of key issues before the General Assembly. It has actively campaigned against Gov. Bill Haslam’s Insure Tennessee plan and led the push to scrap the state’s Hall Tax on investment income.

The organization has also called for passage of legislation dubbed the “right to try” bill that would allow terminally ill patients to try experimental drugs prior to their full Federal Drug Administration approval.

Given its conservative-leaning tendencies, the Beacon Center could be a powerful ally on Capitol Hill to the ACLU and its other partners in the Tennessee Coalition for Sensible Justice. All the participating groups have promised to target reforms that will help poor Tennesseans. 

Justice reform activists say they are encouraged by the diversity of the coalition and believe the project will result in legislation that lawmakers from both the left and the right of the political spectrum can embrace. There is certainly a need for such reform in this state.

According to The Vigil, the quarterly newsletter of ACLU of Tennessee, this state’s incarceration rate is 11 percent higher than the national average. That results in Tennessee taxpayers paying more than $900 million annually to house and feed inmates — leaving few dollars for long-term treatment and rehabilitation programs.

And while the state’s incarceration rate has increased by 256 percent between 1981 and 2013, Tennessee’s violent crime rate remains one of the highest in the nation. That’s a good argument for finding a bipartisan solution to justice reform.


Robert Houk is Opinion page editor for the Johnson City Press. He can be reached at [email protected]

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