Some Tennessee activists, business leaders and government officials say it feels like the state is ready for meaningful criminal justice reform. At a conference organized by a prison ministry group Wednesday, advocates discussed challenges and solutions to the hot-button issue.
But other reformers worry those leading the conversation won’t go far enough.
Davidson County Sheriff Daron Hall says he spends most of his time as a law enforcement official arguing with skeptics of criminal justice reform. So he tells the hundreds of advocates in the room it’s encouraging to have a governor, corporations and nonprofits who agree on the need for improvement.
“Shame on us if we don’t take advantage of that.”
The conference was put together by the faith-based group Men of Valor. Gov. Bill Lee used to serve on their board and has made criminal justice reform a focal point of his agenda. Meanwhile, policy groups on the right and the left have called for legislation to address issues like court costs and barriers to reentry.
Hall says he also wants to address mental illness, addiction and what he described as a “spiritual void” among offenders.
But a handful protesters interrupted his speech. They chanted about the shortcomings of Tennessee’s criminal justice system, including cold food in the prisons, local cooperation with immigration agents and Nashville-based for-profit prison company CoreCivic.
“My body does not belong to the state,” they repeated. “We will be free from fear.”
Hall invited the protesters to take a seat and hear what he had to say. Instead, the protesters were escorted out, their shouts echoing in the hallway.
“Maybe I was wrong. Maybe we all don’t agree. I don’t know,” Hall says. “But those of us who came here to do something about the issues that we’ve all faced, that’s what this is all about.”
Samantha Max is a Report for America corps member.