Tennessee set to begin prison reform

Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander was expected to sign legislation today that will mean early release for many state prisoners and will keep other convicts from entering Tennessee's overcrowded prison system. The bills were passed by a reluctant General Assembly, called into a month-long special session by the governor. He was acting in the face of a 1982 federal court ruling that declared the state prison system unconstitutional because of violence and overcrowding.

The centerpiece of the prison-reform package is the governor's Comprehensive Corrections Act. Major provisions include:

A mechanism that allows the governor to reduce all inmate sentences in 5 percent increments to create a bigger pool of prisoners eligible for parole. The Paroles Board will then decide who to parole early and release enough inmates to end overcrowding.

About 150 inmates will win early release this month under that provision to ensure the population falls below 7,019 by the end of the year, as required by a June federal court order. (As of Monday, the population stood at 7,231.) Without a subsequent court ban on new admissions, handed down in October, there would have been about 7,600 by Dec. 31, state officials said.

Allowing the governor to block admissions of nonviolent prisoners into the state system and require they be held in local jails when the state system is overcrowded.

A liberalized system of ``incentive credits'' that will allow convicts to earn up to 16 days off their parole eligibility date for each 30 days of good behavior and special achievements.

A ``contract sentencing'' measure that allows the Department of Correction to cut up to 35 percent off an inmate's sentence if the prisoner agrees to certain conditions, such as restitution to victims or enrollment in educational or drug rehabilitation programs.

A reduction of the minimum time a ``persistent and aggravated'' violent offender must serve before parole eligibility, from 50 to 40 percent of his or her sentence.

Elimination of many restrictions on inmate classification so that even those convicted of violent crimes may participate in work-release programs.

State financing for new local jails in communities that agree to house state inmates with sentences of up to six years. The state payment to local jails for keeping state inmates is raised from $15 to $25 a day per inmate.

Other approved bills establish a Tennessee Sentencing Commission, which has been given the job of recommending a complete overhaul of the state's criminal code within two years. It also will create a system to encourage more use of alternatives to incarceration, such as supervised public-service work and victim restitution.

There is also a measure requiring that whenever a bill to lengthen prison sentences is considered, legislators must first calculate the resulting increase in prison costs and appropriate money to cover it.

In the special General Assembly session that ended last Thursday, Alexander won approval of every major provision he wanted, with two exceptions: a 5-cent-a-pack increase in cigarette taxes to help finance new prison construction, and authorization to turn the building and operation of two proposed new 500-bed maximum-security prisons over to a private company.

Legislators instead provided for an extra $110 million in bonds to cover the costs. They also decided that projected budget surpluses, coupled with some trims in the governor's original plan, would eliminate the need for a tax increase. Alexander decided to go along.

The package provides $188 million for prison construction and renovation and $292 million for operating expenses. The governor says about 2,700 inmate beds will be made available when the provisions are implemented, including 1,400 places in new local jails that agree to house state prisoners.

Alexander's legislation has been roundly denounced by district attorneys general and conservative legislators because of the provisions that will shorten sentences of many inmates. But with the court order in mind, a majority of lawmakers eventually adopted an attitude perhaps best expressed by state Sen. Riley Darnell (D) of Clarksville: ``Hold your nose and vote for it.''

Alexander contended the legislation would increase public safety over the long run by providing a more orderly system of punishment -- a prospect, he said, far better than ``trying to build our way out of the problem'' with still more new prisons. That, he said, would mean higher taxes or cuts in other state programs.

Alexander said the legislation would ensure compliance with the federal court order to reduce the prison system's population, though a backlog of state prisoners in local jails will likely continue for several months.

US District Court Judge Thomas Higgins of Nashville had also banned admissions of all but ``extremely dangerous'' inmates into the system on Oct. 23 because of cramped conditions in three reception centers, where inmates undergo processing and classification.

Only 10 inmates have qualified as extremely dangerous since then, forcing more than 350 state convicts to be held in local jails and causing widespread complaints from sheriffs.

At one point, Shelby County Sheriff Gene Barksdale had 12 state prisoners taken from his jail and handcuffed to a fence at the West Tennessee Reception Center. The men were later returned to a county facility.

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