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As TN moves forward in criminal justice reform, some question bills on nonviolent crimes

Gov. Bill Lee signs criminal justice reform bill on Monday, May 24 (FOX 17 News)
Gov. Bill Lee signs criminal justice reform bill on Monday, May 24 (FOX 17 News)
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Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee on Monday signed two criminal justice reform bills meant to help offenders successfully re-enter society and cut back on the number of people sent to prison in our state.

Advocates say it’s a major step forward, but they also point to a handful of bills he signed this past year that do the opposite, like one that targets protestors on state property.

Last summer as protestors camped outside of the Tennessee State Capitol, so legislators pushed a bill through that would make it a felony to set up a tent overnight on state property. It’s increasing those penalties for non-violent crimes that have some confused at what the goal is.

Of the two bills the Governor signed Monday, one that would increase help for offenders after release from prison, and another that offers support to alternatives to prison for non violent offenders, like support for drug courts and mental health courts.

RELATED: Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee signs criminal justice reform bills

“For 30 years we had a policy that was strictly tough on crime, and those decades of policies have not worked,” Governor Lee told reporters.

Sen. Democratic Caucus Chairwoman Raumesh Akbari says it’s a good move, but just the beginning of what our state needs.

“When we’re promoting diversion, that’s a good thing, and really looking at meaningful ways for people to re-enter society, I think that’s perfect,” Sen. Akbari said, “I do think that this is a good first step, but we do have a ways to go.”

This past year, Governor Lee signed a handful of laws that have increased penalties and prison time.

“Some of the penalties we’ve stiffened this year were crimes associated with using a gun, or crimes against women and children. Violent offenses,” Governor Lee said.

However, not all of them target violent offenses. Some bills increase penalties for drag racing, and even setting up tents on state property.

Reporter: “Just last summer, the bill that you signed that would increase those penalties to a felony for people who set up a tent on state property, You know, that’s a non-violent crime, so how do you reconcile that with this step forward?

Governor Lee: “I think there were bills brought forth by the legislature last year that were in response to violence in the summer, and that’s what happens when we have folks break the law. We have a response to that and the laws that come forth. I think broadly what we’re looking at here is a tough but smart approach.”

“Those increased incarceration crimes, it’s very disappointing and sometimes it seems like in order to pass reform, we have to sandwich it with increased penalties and I’d like us to move away from that,” Sen. Akbari said.

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