Monday, July 11, 2016

Tennessee Black Caucus of State Legislators seeks community input on criminal justice reform

Black Caucus members: Sara Kyle (non-member) and state representatives Barbara
Cooper, Brenda Gilmore, Johnnie R. Turner, Ramesh Akbari, Karen Camper and
Memphis City Councilwoman Patrice Robinson. (Photo by Wiley Henry)
A bevy of citizens attending a forum on criminal justice reform on July 10 at First Baptist Church –Broad expressed their concerns about the high incarceration rate of African Americans comprising the federal, state and local criminal justice system.
Hosted by the Tennessee Black Caucus of State Legislators, the forum drew a potpourri of citizens – activists, civic leaders, politicians and police officers – who listened intently to a panel discussion about reforming both the juvenile and criminal justice system. Memphis was the last leg of a three-city, information-gathering tour that began in Chattanooga in May and Nashville in June.
“The message so far is there are some artificial barriers out there that prevent people who have paid their debt to society,” said Nashville state Rep. Brenda Gilmore (Dist. 54), who chairs the Black Caucus. “They get out of prison and they’re not able to find housing, transportation or meaningful employment.”
The Black Caucus proposed 40 bills during the 109th legislative session on criminal justice reform. Seven of those bills passed with bipartisan support – from the expunction of theft-related Class E felonies to pretrial diversion and judicial diversion in juvenile delinquent matters.
“We’re going to promise you 14 next year,” said Rep. Johnnie R. Turner (Dist. 85), the Caucus treasurer. “Who doesn’t have a family member that hasn’t been impacted negatively by the criminal justice system?”
The incarceration rate in Tennessee is not reflective of the population, said Rep. Ramesh Akbari (Dist. 91), the Caucus vice chair. Low-level offenders, she added, should not be given long-term prison sentences.
“Forty percent of folks that went to the prison system this year from Tennessee were for parole and technical violations,” Akbari said.
Sen. Sara Kyle (Dist. 30) sponsored Senate bill 2440 – “Ban the Box.” The House version (HB2442), sponsored by Gilmore, prohibits a state employer from inquiring about an applicant’s criminal history on an initial application form for employment.
Kyle is not a Caucus member, but added, “The issues are so important.”
Memphis and Shelby County Juvenile Court Judge Dan H. Michael cited statistics to buttress his argument that the number of juveniles in his charge has dwindled compared to the number of juveniles entering the system prior to his tenure.
He added that roughly 160 juveniles are placed with the state each year and routed to detention centers such as the one in Somerville in Fayette County – the John S. Wilder Youth Development Center. Fifty percent of them, the judge said, come from Shelby County.
“If we’re going to empty prisons, we’ve got to start with juveniles. We’ve got to start with families,” Michael said.
The panelists called attention to recidivism and that juveniles and adult offenders are likely to return to detention or lockup. “We’re looking for alternative ways to transport youth to detention…to lower the recidivism rate,” said Gary Cummings of Juvenile Court.
Dr. Altha J. Stewart, associate professor of Psychiatry at UT Health Science Center, said too many children are being exposed to trauma. “Forty percent of them have been diagnosed with mental illness.”
The juvenile justice panel went beyond the time limit.
“Our mandate is not to incarcerate, but to educate,” said Chief Kirk Fields of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office, kicking off the discussion about criminal justice reform.        
The panelists provided as much pertinent information as possible. When the floor was open for questions, Akbari, who moderated the forum, read many of the ones that were written on paper. She fielded them to the panel.
After hearing much about reform, Deputy Chief Jim Harvey of the Memphis Police Department stood at the microphone and said he had to speak. “When you’re trying to change laws, take the victims into account,” he said.

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