From the Tennesseean – Tennessee’s economy depends on a having a strong workforce to keep businesses booming, communities thriving and families prospering. Now more than ever, we need all hands on deck to get our economy back on track after the COVID-19 pandemic.

But many of our working-age adults are unable to find jobs and earn a living for themselves and their families because of enormous barriers facing Tennesseans who’ve previously been incarcerated. Too often, lack of access to employment, housing and behavioral health services traps people in cycles of poverty and incarceration, and locks individuals who want to work and improve their lives out of our workforce.

The current system isn’t working

Tennessee taxpayers are spending more than ever on corrections, but our high recidivism rate shows our system is not working. In fact, the problem is getting worse.

Tennessee’s prison population rose 12% from 2009 to 2018, leaving our state’s incarceration rate 10% higher than the national average. This has left the state spending $1 billion a year on corrections — a staggering figure that doesn’t account for losses in productivity and tax revenue. And despite this hefty investment, increasing incarceration has not made our communities safer.

When someone goes to prison, taxpayers pick up the cost of their housing, clothing, food, health care and more. That adds up to almost $31,500 a year to incarcerate someone in a Tennessee prison, on average. With the right supervision and support, however, many of those individuals could safely be in the community, where they can be earning for themselves and their families at a fraction of the cost to taxpayers.

Lawmakers in Nashville have the opportunity over the coming weeks to move our state forward through two pieces of legislation, House Bill 784 and House Bill 785. These bills will put us on track to transform lives and recover from the pandemic stronger than before. Together, these bills chart a new course at both ends of the prison system — strengthening alternatives to incarceration for people entering the system, and bolstering reentry support for individuals as they leave incarceration and return home.

To view 4th Purpose CEO Josh Smith’s full opinion piece, click here