Photo courtesy of the Nashville Voice
Story by Alexis Marshall and Hayden Goodridge/ Contributing Writers
Criminal justice reform has been a major priority on both sides of the aisle in Tennessee’s General Assembly this session. Democratic Senator Brenda Gilmore has sponsored several bills addressing issues like sentencing reform and restoration of voter rights.
Gilmore sat down with the Siegenthaler News Service to discuss her own legislation, the challenges of bipartisanship and her goals for reforming Tennessee’s criminal justice system.
The interview begins with Gilmore explaining the potential impacts of Senate Bill 985 which encourages judges to consider alternative sentences for nonviolent minor offenses when the convicted party is the primary caretaker of a dependent child.
Brenda Gilmore: “I believe that it will reduce the cost that we are presently paying to put people in prison for low-level nonviolent crimes. And the fact that we can also keep families together— because there’s a very high percentage chance that when parents are in prison that their children will complete that cycle and also end up in prison. So it’s an opportunity to make families whole and also reduce a tremendous amount of money that we are putting in our prisons, including private prisons, when we should be using that money on education or infrastructure.”
Alexis Marshall: “Do you anticipate any opposition to this bill when it goes into committee or otherwise once it goes to a floor?”
BG: “I don’t know, for some reason again it collapsed in the Senate last year. So I’ll have to talk to the members and see, you know. Maybe they say that some of these services or alternative sentencings are already out there in the community, and that probably is true. But it’s so segment(ed). For example, some of the services like drug and alcohol treatment,, domestic violence education and prevention, and physical and sexual abuse counseling — there’s 11 different alternatives that a judge could do rather than sending somebody to prison. So my suspicion is that they’re probably going to say those are things that are already out there in the community. But this I think brings it into one central bank so that the judge will have more discretion and recommend these rather than sending them to prison.”
AM: “Can you give me an example, maybe a concrete real world example, of how this might affect people in your constituency?”
BG: “It’ll affect people all over the state of Tennessee when they commit low level crimes…. For example… if someone was stopped using a small amount of drugs, rather than sending them to jail for that, we could send them to a resource center where they can get treatment for the drugs.”
AM: “Is there anything else that you would like to do on the talk of this bill, why it’s important to you and why it’s important to your constituents and the state of Tennessee as a whole?”
BG: “Well I think I think that there’s an adage that when the tide rises it helps all of our boats…. I think it’s good for all Tennesseans, because when we send a parent to prison for a non-violent or low level crime, the children either stay with relatives or they become wards of the state, which there are so many social costs, emotional costs in some case(s) even mental costs (that) are involved. And so I just think it’s a win-win, not just for that individual family but for the entire state of Tennessee.”
Hayden Goodridge: “In January, you introduced Senate Bill 36 which is restoring voting rights to felons if they’re currently paying court costs and restitution, instead of if it’s already been paid.”
BG: “Actually I’m handing this bill over to Senator Steve Dickerson. He had a bill and I had a bill and we were both asking for the same thing. The only difference between our bills is I think mine was probably more expensive. These kinds of bills have been introduced for years, and even President Trump has talked about criminal justice reform and our governor talks about criminal justice reform. So I think that there might be a strong will in our legislature to really get serious—not just nibble at the edges—but to get serious and really make significant change.”
HG: “Governor Bill Lee has been putting heavy emphasis on criminal justice reform. Do you feel like these type of bills that reform and make it easier to regain voting rights go along with what he intends to do for Tennessee?”
BG: “Well I think it’s certainly needed because when people have been to prison and they come out to become employed, they’re paying taxes. So to integrate them back into society, I think that this is just a further step and I don’t know how much equity is involved if we say you can pay taxes but you can’t vote. So I very much would like to see this bill get approved.”
HG: “I was wondering when it comes to being super minority, when you introduce a bill with Democrat sponsors on both sides, does that make it harder to get through?”
BG: “Absolutely. So when I first came up here, Senator (Douglas) Henry, who’s now deceased, told me that it’s amazing what you can get accomplished if you don’t mind who gets the credit. And so if Senator Dickerson can get it through, it’s going to impact—I think the research I did said it would impact 400,000 people. So if he can get it through I think it will benefit Tennesseans. “
HG: “Do you Tennessee Democrats find yourselves standing in solidarity with each other much like Democrats in the United States Congress are doing?”
BG: “I think that we all want the same things—Republicans and Democrats. We want safe neighborhoods, we want good strong schools for our children, and we want good jobs for our constituents. I think how we get there sometime differs and we want everybody to have good health insurance and health care. The paths we take are different. And my sincere belief is that we will end up better in the same place. It just may take us down different roads.”
Although criminal justice reform is a major part of the legislative agenda this session, the process for moving these bills through both chambers is gradual and incremental. Since the interview with Gilmore, Senate Bill 985 has passed in both chambers, but Dickerson’s bill has been pushed to the first calendar of 2020.
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