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Community Corrections program making comeback in Tennessee

The Davidson County Courthouse in Nashville, also known as the Justice Adolphus A. Birch Building, in which a Community Corrections program has operated.
Brent Moore
The Davidson County Courthouse in Nashville, also known as the Justice Adolphus A. Birch Building, in which a Community Corrections program has operated.

State could put $11M into intensive probation effort along with new contract

Two years after doing an end-around on the Legislature, the Tennessee Department of Correction appears ready to resurrect Community Corrections programs with $11 million in funding and a new contract, according to a state senator.

Republican Sen. Ed Jackson of Jackson confirmed a tentative revamping of the program this week and said he is preparing to send a letter to the Administrative Office of the Courts asking it to notify judges they can feel “confident” in resuming sentences to the intensive probation program. The Legislature created the program in 1985 as a last chance for offenders who didn’t qualify for typical probation programs and otherwise would be headed to prison.

The new direction, which remains tentative, comes after lawmakers passed a measure in 2023 prohibiting the Department of Correction from penalizing Community Corrections agencies for supervising offenders sentenced to them based under the 40-year-old law. A Department of Correction spokeswoman by deadline Wednesday to confirm or comment.

Tennessee State Sen. Ed Jackson
Tennessee Lookout
John Partipilo
Tennessee State Sen. Ed Jackson

Legislators also sent a strong message to correction officials at an August 2023 meeting that they wanted the program to be renewed, instead of shifting all offenders to the state’s probation program, which is considered understaffed and less effective.

A year earlier, Gov. Bill Lee’s administration — despite orders from lawmakers to keep Community Corrections going because of its effectiveness — practically wrote the program out of existence with a request for proposals that required different guidelines. Vendors would have to offer either day reporting centers, outpatient treatment or a residential facility, and some weren’t prepared to make such a shift.

Since then, Jackson and other lawmakers have been negotiating resumption of the program, in part, at the request of criminal court judges who believe it works.

For instance, Jackson, chairman of a joint correction subcommittee, said he wants the Community Corrections program in Madison, Chester and Henderson counties, which is handling misdemeanor cases, to resume its former practices and start taking felony cases again. Agencies, in effect, would be prepared by July 2025 when a new request for proposals is put into effect.

Correction officials met in late April, the day the Legislature adjourned sine die, and took a new outlook.

“They realized it definitely has merit and this program needs to come back,” Jackson said.

The department spent about $13.8 million when Community Corrections programs were in full effect statewide, and putting $11 million in the budget marks a philosophical turnaround for the state. Programs across Tennessee were forced to shut down two years ago when correction officials rewrote the guidelines.

Five of 18 Community Corrections programs closed, affecting the greater Knoxville area, Nashville and in West Tennessee.

Westate Corrections Network in Union City continued to run a Community Corrections program, supervising offenders through a day reporting center, but its clientele dropped to about 75-80 people in four counties (Obion, Weakley, Dyer and Lake) from 175, according to Executive Director Michael Walton.

The agency’s caseload is rebuilding, he said.

A return to full force would help strengthen the Community Corrections Association and ensure probation services are provided based on the decades-old state law, Walton said.

This story was originally published by the Tennessee Lookout.

Sam Stockard is a veteran Tennessee reporter and editor with the Tennessee Lookout, having written for the Daily News Journal in Murfreesboro, where he served as lead editor when the paper won an award for being the state's best Sunday newspaper two years in a row. He has led the Capitol Hill bureau for The Daily Memphian. His awards include Best Single Editorial from the Tennessee Press Association.