State Rep. Jeremy Faison Urges A New Approach To Criminal Justice Reform: Restorative Justice

“Buzz Words” are thrown around during campaign season by passionate politicians to emphasize their platform and to bolster support. Criminal Justice Reform (CJR) is one of these “buzz words.”

From conservative groups such as the Beacon Center to liberal groups such as the ACLU, public support for CJR is on the rise. President Trump, Nancy Pelosi, and Chuck Schumer all have openly used the words CJR.  Even our very own Governor-elect Bill Lee consistently spoke of the need for CJR.  Talking about it and actually governing in such a way that true meaningful and bi/partisan CJR can take place are two vastly different actions.  I believe there are four foundational shifts we must adopt before any true CJR can happen.

1. Adopt a restorative justice lens.

For all crimes committed, except the most heinous and vicious, we must look at punishment through a restorative lens rather than through a retributive lens.  A person who has paid their debt to society deserves to be given a chance to make a fresh start.  American novelist, Nathaniel Hawthorn tried to teach us about the problems that come from labeling a person who has erred with a scarlet letter on their chest. Tennesseans leaving jail or prison need to know a path to living a good life does in fact exist.  This path begins to be established by getting rid of life sentences on nonviolent crimes and stopping excessive fines and fees, which leads to my second recommendation.

2.  Reform the labyrinth of fines and fees.

When you live on poverty wages a $500 fine might as well be a 5 million dollar fine.  As a representative, I witness my constituents in East TN becoming trapped by a vicious cycle of fines from the original crime and fees that incurred from being in the court system.  Adding to the enormous fines and fees, we have made it incredibly difficult to know how and to whom the fee must be paid once you get in trouble.  From local courts to state fines and local clerks to probation officers, a Tennessean quickly becomes frustrated and perplexed by all of the fines and fees.  Even with the help of an attorney, our system of financial retribution is unmanageable.  Many Tennesseans in our criminal justice system have no financial support at home or the money to hire someone to help them navigate the labyrinth.  In my research, I have found that this labyrinth is the main reason for recidivism.

3. Establish a better probation and parole system.

Probation and parole (P n P) were meant to help us get people out of prison earlier but it has actually muddied the water.  When a person finally lands a job, which is nearly impossible with a felony record, their probation officer demands that they show up at 9:00 am on Wednesday morning.   How is one supposed to keep a job and take off work every week?   P n P have got to become a means to hold our struggling Tennesseans accountable, but not hold them down.  The stories of probation officers violating a parolee, (sending someone back to jail,) are too numerous to count. The drive to change and become a better person loses its impact when a person is met with rejection day in and day out from P and P.

4. Return driver’s licenses.

Give the hundreds of thousands of Tennesseans back their driver’s licenses without restricting their ability to go to work, church, or the grocery store. Taking away a person’s driver’s license and then telling them to somehow make it in society is as thoughtless as turning a stud horse into a gelding and then hoping it will somehow reproduce.

By taking away one’s driver’s license, adding massive fines on top of a life sentence record, and requiring counterproductive probation and parole commitments, we have done everything we can as a government to ensure our people have zero chance to survive and thrive free of crime. CJR itself is not the “buzz word” we need to be using, our conversations and actions both need to be shaped by the words restorative justice.

Source: TN State Representative Jeremy Faison, District 11

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