The Time is Ripe for Criminal Justice Reform

Newly inaugurated Tennessee Governor Bill Lee has repeatedly stated that one of his main priorities would be criminal justice reform, with a specific focus of spending less on prisons and creating smarter sentencing guidelines. The organized bar has an opportunity to assist Gov. Lee’s administration on this much-needed initiative.

In fiscal year 2017-2018, the Tennessee legislature appropriated more than $994 million to the Tennessee Department of Corrections (TDOC) and just over $1 billion was included in the budget for 2018-2019. TDOC’s statistics show that the total felon inmate population was 26,998 in 2008 and increased nearly 12 percent to 30,161 in 2017. The male inmate population increased 8.4 percent during this time frame, while the female population increased a staggering 58 percent during this same period. TDOC reports that its operations allow for a capacity of only 23,106 inmates.

Cyntoia Brown recently made national headlines when Gov. Bill Haslam granted clemency and commuted her life sentence. Ms. Brown is scheduled for release on supervised parole later this year after serving 15 years in prison. Ms. Brown’s story is an example of harsh sentencing in our state. She was serving a life sentence for killing a man who paid her for sex when she was only 16 years old. Her life sentence meant that she would have been required to serve at least 51 years before being eligible for parole. While her crime was horrific, she was only 16 years old at the time. In prison, she earned a high school diploma as well as an associates’ degree from Lipscomb University. In granting her clemency, Gov. Haslam noted, “Transformation should be accompanied by hope.”

In Georgia, Republican Governor Nathan Deal pursued a comprehensive criminal justice reform package to control the growth of the state’s prison population and reserve prison for only the most violent criminals. When Gov. Deal took office in 2011, Georgia was already spending more than $1.2 billion on its prisons and was slated to construct two new prisons at a cost of more than $500 million. Recommendations for the criminal justice reform package in Georgia came from a committee of judges, lawyers and law enforcement officials appointed to come up with solutions. These stakeholders and the state’s lawmakers always maintained that public safety was of the utmost importance throughout the process. The steps taken in Georgia saved taxpayers almost $270 million over five years. The state also supported the creation of specialty courts that required participants to work, seek treatment and stay sober.

The Tennessee Bar Association has the opportunity to contribute to Gov. Lee’s criminal justice reform initiative. We must work with other legal groups such as district attorneys general, public defenders, judges, legislators, representatives from the governor’s office, academics, and criminal law bar organizations to discuss ideas and find common ground. Some of these groups cannot take official positions on some of these issues. However, the Tennessee Bar Association is in a unique position to facilitate conversations around criminal justice reform. There is a role we can play to advance meaningful reforms in Tennessee and we will work toward achieving them.
Some of issues that we can address include:

  • Sentencing: Sentencing guidelines for nonviolent crimes and defendants with no history of violent offenses can be examined. Discussions should take place about increasing parole opportunities, reviewing the threshold that elevates a crime from misdemeanor to felony and providing judges more discretion to deviate from minimum mandatory sentences based on unique circumstances.
  • Juveniles: Juveniles commit more crimes and have a high recidivism rate after being exposed to the adult criminal system. Juvenile offenders must be held accountable but at the same time recognizing they are not adults.
  • Specialty courts: Specialty courts are designed to rehabilitate defendants and reduce recidivism. Drug courts, veterans courts, youth courts and other specialty courts have been successful in other states but need adequate funding as well as experienced staff and judges. Discussions should take place about the efficacy of specialty courts, especially in the case of nonviolent crimes.
  • Mental Health:  According to Mental Health America, Tennessee is ranked 41 out of 50 states for providing access to mental health. Conversations should be considered about recognizing mental health issues and providing inmates with mental health treatment after incarceration.
  • Transition back to society: Helping inmates to prepare for life outside of prison, and preventing recidivism are important. We need ideas on how to increase job training and remove barriers to employment. 

Pannu’s Pairings – The Viennese Heurigen

During the Habsburg reign over the Holy Roman Empire, wine production was heavily regulated and subject to exorbitant taxes. This changed in 1784 when Emperor Joseph II issued a decree known as the “Josephinische Zirkularverordnung,” granting winemakers the privilege of selling wine they produced themselves without taxes and a tradition was born. Winemakers opened up wine taverns throughout Vienna, Austria, known as “heurigen.” Today, hundreds of heurigen still exist in Vienna and in the eastern part of Austria, particularly in the famous winegrowing state of Burgenland.
Heurigen are mostly located on the outskirts of the Vienna where vineyards exist within its city limits and are usually in a courtyard setting. These taverns are rustic and cozy, serving young wines (less than a year old) and traditional cuisine such as roast pork, meatloaf, cold cuts, blood sausage, schmaltz, pickled vegetables and potato salad. These traditional foods pair well with the Austrian white varietal Grüner Veltliner and domestic red varietals Zweigelt, Blaufränkisch and Sankt Laurent.

Heurigen operate seasonally with unpredictable open and closure times. Traditionally, the winemaker will place a bundle of pine on its front entrance to signify the Heurigen is open. I enjoy strolling through the neighborhoods in which several Heurigen are present and picking the locations that appear most cozy to me. The Grinzing neighborhood in Vienna’s 19th district is the best-known area to experience the Heurigen tradition but has too many tourists these days. The Nussdorf neighborhood, also in the 19th district, also has plenty of Huerigen and tends to be more popular with the locals. My favorite Heurigen are Kierlinger and Matthias Getzinger in Nussdorf and Zahel in Mauer Bei Wein.

Jason M. Pannu at a Heurigen in Mödling, Austria.

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