Our criminal justice system is broken. While this may come as news to some, to the thousands of Tennesseans who have interacted with our system, this is all too common knowledge. While there have been reform efforts over the past few years — and some true progress — it is not nearly enough.
In those years I have sponsored and passed legislation allowing certain offenders to have their driver’s licenses restored and eliminated some of the costly, associated fees. Without a driver’s licenses, it is difficult for those looking to rebuild their lives to find and keep a job. In making this simple change, we better equip those trying to make a successful transition back into normal life.
Further, I have passed legislation eliminating burdensome expungement fees related to some criminal charges, allowing individuals to clear their names and secure a stable job. Once a person has served their time and paid for their mistakes, we should have a system that allows them to move on with their lives.
But, this is just a start.
To get serious about criminal justice reform, we must address the failure that is the War On Drugs. Americans of all political ideologies agree this initiative has not accomplished what it set out to do and has drastically affected the lives of Tennesseans. In the last half-century, no force has done more damage to the family unit than the War On Drugs. And, as we have seen, this effort has had a dangerous and disproportionate impact on young African American men. This has to change.
Rethinking the War On Drugs does not mean throwing up our hands and allowing drug kingpins to flood our streets with drugs. Instead, it allows us to focus on those criminals who run drug operations while giving those who commit low-level drug offenses options for education, employment or treatment.
By diverting addicts and low-level offenders away from prison, we can significantly reduce the number of people entering the criminal justice system. In doing so we treat them as the patient they are and not simply push them into the overburdened prison system.
I am proud of the work that we have been able to accomplish in the General Assembly thus far, but these are just first steps. To truly reform our system, we must set aside preconceived notions, put an end to failed policies, and pursue policies that keep our society safe, while recognizing the human potential for redemption.