Chattanooga’s District 9 Councilwoman Demetrus Coonrod stood front and center Monday afternoon during the signing of Governor Bill Lee’s Criminal Justice Reform Act.
Legislation the governor said will result in fewer people incarcerated and a lower crime rate in Tennessee.
Coonrod, believed to be the only convicted felon ever to be elected to public office in Chattanooga, has long advocated for cutting back on the number of people sent to prison, as well as helping offenders successfully re-enter society.
“I’ve been advocating for criminal justice reform for quite some time,” Coonrod said. “I’m on board to change lives of people who have been affected by the criminal justice system. And now we have a governor on board, Gov. Bill Lee, that has been pushing this legislation through. And I’m just excited about it.”
The two new pieces of legislation signed into law Monday were proposed by Gov. Lee himself and passed by the General Assembly in April.
The first is called the Alternatives to Incarceration Act, and establishes a way for local governments and private organizations to establish community-based alternatives to incarceration for low-level and non-violent offenders, such as support for drug courts and mental health courts.
The bill excludes offenses involving a dangerous weapon and also caps the timeframe of probation sentences at 10 years for multiple felony offenses. If only one probation sentence is given, the courts can’t give more than eight years.
The second bill, called the Re-Entry Success Act, creates mandatory supervision programs for people recently released from prison. The bill will also create programs meant to find former inmates jobs and reduces the liability for employers who are hiring people with a criminal record.
Both pieces of legislation will take effect on July 1.
While some critics admit that Gov. Lee’s new reform bills are definitely a step forward, they also point out a handful of bills that he signed this past year that have increased penalties and prison time for non-violent crimes–such as legislation that targets drag racing.
And last summer, as Black Lives Matter protestors peacefully camped outside of the Tennessee State Capitol, legislators pushed a bill through that would make it a felony to set up a tent overnight on state property.
“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,” Gov. Lee said. “We have a response to that.”
A ceremony was held at the Tennessee State Museum to celebrate the signing of the new criminal justice bills into law. Councilwoman Coonrod, Tennessee Commissioner of Correction Tony Parker–as well as many other state lawmakers who helped champion the legislation–spoke during the ceremony.