Gubernatorial candidate Harwell: Juvenile justice reform will likely be issue for next governor

Nathan Baker • Updated Sep 21, 2017 at 11:21 PM

Tennessee House Speaker Beth Harwell may carry over her work on a legislative task force examining juvenile justice reform into the governor’s mansion should she win voters’ approval next year.

Speaking Thursday with the Johnson City Press’ editorial board, the Republican gubernatorial candidate said sentencing reform, both juvenile and adult, would likely be an issue the state’s next executive will face.

“A lot of the problems as a society we’re facing, whether it’s drugs or truancy or some of these other issues, we’re not going to be able to incarcerate our way out of them,” Harwell said. “We’re going to have to think outside of the box and look for new ways.”

The Davidson County legislator cautioned she was not soft on crime, but said something must be done to stop Tennessee’s revolving-door prison system.

“They are coming back out, they tend to re-offend, and on and on we go,” she said. “So, it just seems like to me more energy and effort has to be put into rehabilitation.”

For instance, she said, encouraging the establishment of drug courts, in which low-level drug offenders are provided treatment for addiction and monitored closely to prevent relapse instead of facing incarceration, could help Tennesseans with addictions keep their lives in order and save the state the expense of jailing them.

Harwell and Lt. Gov. Randy McNally created the Joint Ad Hoc Tennessee Blue Ribbon Task Force on Juvenile Justice in June and set the legislators, judges, attorneys and commissioners of the departments of Children’s Services, Education, and Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services to work developing evidence-based policy to reform the juvenile justice system.

Harwell co-chairs the task force with Sen. Mark Norris, a presidential nominee to serve as a federal judge in Tennessee.

Balancing juvenile justice system reforms with judges’ discretion in sentencing is a particular challenge of the task force, she said, adding that she’s not sure if the group will have policy recommendations ready for the General Assembly in January.

“I have been surprised at how convoluted the juvenile justice system is in this state,” she said. “It really varies on what county you’re in, who the judges are in those counties, etc.”

Harwell also said she would not work to repeal the tax code changes that brought a fuel tax increase to the state, as Sen. Mae Beavers, another governor hopeful promised.

“I would say to those candidates that they need to go to all 95 counties and tell them they’re not going to get their road projects or their bridge projects, because that’s what you’re really looking at if you repeal the gas tax,” she said. “A governor doesn’t repeal taxes. Only the House of Representatives can appropriate money, we’re the taxing body, not the governor, so that’s a misconception there.

“But if you did, you’d have to go and tell people we’re going to up your food tax — because that was a part of the program, too — and we’re going to go to those who manufacture in the state and we’re going to say ‘we’re going to raise your franchise and excise tax,’ because we lowered that.”

Though she said she’s against recreational use of marijuana in the state, Harwell said heavily regulated and carefully controlled medicinal marijuana has a purpose, and she would at least keep an open mind about it.

Harwell and McNally sat a Joint Ad Hoc Committee in August to study legalizing cannabis for medicinal purposes. Sen. Rusty Crowe, R-Johnson City, is on the committee.

The Republican gubernatorial primary will be held in August 2018 before the election in November.

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