After working at the U.S. Department of Justice, and as a criminal appellate lawyer for the West Virginia Attorney General’s Office, Julie Warren is devoted to improving the system for everyone—from parolees to police. She has a unique perspective on the criminal justice system. Now, as Tennessee and Kentucky state director for Right on Crime—an organization focused on conservative solutions for criminal justice reform—she’s addressing issues such as overcrowded prisons and the opioid epidemic. “I’ve seen a lot of the failures of the criminal justice system, but I’ve also seen the successes, so I don’t like to pick on the system too much,” she says. “But I think we’re improving it by advocating for reforms.” Warren shares six lessons she’s learned from her experiences.
Tennessee has one of the highest violent crime rates in the Southeast, so there’s a knee-jerk reaction to incarcerate everybody. We all pay our tax dollars to keep our communities safer: In Tennessee we’re talking almost a billion dollars. And is that happening? Just punishing people, without rehabilitation, and without allowing them to fulfill the mandate we’re giving them when we release them back into society, that affects us all. I think a lot of folks are seeing the fruits of the incarceration-first, incarceration-always approach, and they’re not liking them.
- Ex-convicts face huge challenges once they’ve served their time.
Through the Beacon Center of Tennessee, I have had the opportunity to work with Lindsay Holloway. As a teenager, Lindsay found herself addicted to drugs, and eventually selling drugs to support her habit. As a young woman, she found herself facing a federal felony charge of possession and selling stolen weapons, which carried a 6 to 10 year sentence in federal prison. This turning point triggered her dedication to rehabilitation, and she ultimately received probationary sentence. Lindsay has been clean for 7 years. However, she talks about the battles that she faced since becoming a felon: Finding a job, finding housing. Our goal should be for folks, like Lindsay Holloway, to have a pathway to becoming productive members of their communities— who engages their community in a positive way—and yet we have a system that keeps that too often serves as an obstruction toward this goal.
- People are being imprisoned on technicalities.
In Tennessee, a 2015 Department of Corrections report showed that 40 percent of new admissions were people whose supervision was revoked due to technical violations. These include people on probation, parole, or another form of community supervision. When 40 percent of your probation population is being incarcerated for technical violations, that’s a system failure to me. I look at statistics, and if the numbers don’t support a policy, then the policy needs to be changed.
I don’t think the public understands asset forfeiture, and to be perfectly honest, I didn’t always understand it. But the more you engage, the more upsetting it really is, and it feels so un-American. I think that’s our biggest uphill battle and that’s the reform I would love to see passed.
- The best reform models come from Texas.
New reforms will allow thousands of Texas citizens to overcome past mistakes and land on their feet. For example, recent laws provide indemnity for employers who hire ex-offenders and landlords who give them leases. Texas has also reformed the state’s fines and fees practices. State law often allowed overly-punitive sanctions—including jail—for those who failed to pay court-mandated penalties. Now, judges have greater flexibility to consider an individual’s ability to pay, including alternatives such as community service. When we discuss ideas likes this in Tennessee, I love telling our conservative legislators, “Hey, this is not a model that came out of California, this came out of Texas.” And you can see their faces—“Excuse me?” And I’m like, “Yes, and it’s worked, they’ve closed eight prisons, and they did this because it’s a conservative principle, and it’s a principle that works, and it’s a principle that’s bipartisan, because it’s supported by evidence.”
- Kentucky is doing good work, too.
Gov. Matt Bevin showed an extraordinary amount of leadership last legislative session in passing Senate Bill 120—an omnibus reform bill that focused on reentry. Many of the provisions focused on employability and skill training. It created the Prison Industry Enhancement Certification Programs, which will allow industries that meet certain criteria to go inside prisons and hire inmates at fair wage. This means inmates can earn money and gain work experience while in prison. Also, folks with criminal convictions will no longer be denied occupational licenses due to their criminal history, unless there’s a direct relationship between the occupation and their past crime. The bill created a substances abuse reentry pilot program, too. I think this will all bear a lot of fruit, and I really enjoy saying, “Gov. Bevin of Kentucky advocated for this reform bill because he believes in second chances, it’s a conservative issue, and here’s why.”