Why Are Tennessee Taxpayers Paying to Expand a Brand New $208 Million Prison?

Screen Shot 2013-07-15 at 12.23.50 PMThe State of Tennessee has approved more than $50 million in expansions and upgrades to state prisons.  The largest chunk of that spending — $30 million  — was recently approved for expansion of the Bledsoe County Correctional Facility in Pikeville, Tennessee.  The expansion approval comes just months after a new $208 million dollar facility in Pikeville was opened earlier this year. According to the State, the construction, and  now expansion, of the Bledsoe complex was necessary to relieve burdened state and county correctional facilities.

The 1500-plus spike in the number of prison beds in Tennessee stands in stark contrast to more than a dozen states now spending less on incarceration.  Earlier this month, the state of Oregon passed a bill that is projected to save the state $326 million dollars over the next decade.  The bill passed with bi-partisan support and was praised as reflecting “an emerging national consensus on criminal justice policy that locking up more nonviolent offenders for longer prison terms isn’t the best way to fight crime and reduce recidivism.

Before passage of the bill, Oregon’s prison population was anticipated to grow by 2,000 people in the next 10 years — mostly, with non-violent offenders.  The conservative blog Right on Crime characterizes the reform bill as a positive step toward modifying “nonviolent drug and property sentences so that prison beds are focused on serious, violent offenders.”

Oregon is just one of 17 states involved in the federal “Justice Reinvestment Initiative” funded by the U.S. Department of Justice and the Council of State Governments.  A report released in April 2012 followed the progress of the 17 states involved in the initiative and found that data-driven analysis helped these states effectively adjust laws, policing, community investment and sentencing. The report found that redefining the focus of the criminal justice system has the potential to contain corrections costs while improving public safety.

Florida recently repurposed part of a new prison complex for education and reentry training at a cost of only $5.4 million AND was able to provide salary bonuses to many of its Department of Correction employees who have helped drive down recidivism rates in the state. 

In February of this year, Knoxville’s NBC affiliate WBIR questioned whether Tennessee’s criminal justice system is in need of significant reform, citing “tough on crime” legislation that is costing the state millions… that it doesn’t have. Read the story here.

Want to learn more about this topic? 

U.S. incarceration trends in this infographic by the Public Welfare Foundation.

Click here to learn about the DOJ’s Justice Reinvestment Initiative.

Read this article to find out why the ACLU is concerned that some states are weakening their Justice Reinvestment Initiatives.