Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam thought he was making some positive changes when he decided the probation system in his state needed some tweaking. Unfortunately the changes he wanted to make had one big problem: they were unconstitutional, a Tennessee court of appeals recently decided. According to the appeals court, the changes Haslam made violated defendants’ rights and “encroaches on judicial authority in criminal matters.”
Governor Haslam’s Changes
Many states in the country claim prison overcrowding as a problem, and with more and more people being put in the judicial system on a daily basis, there really is no end in sight for this decades-long problem. Tennessee Governor Haslam thought he came up with a viable solution. He wanted the probation system to be overhauled so that men and women on probation who committed minor violations did not necessarily have to go back to court and then eventually to prison.
Let the Probation Officers Decide?
Haslam wanted to give probation officers the power to decide on punishments (like being sent to rehab or being made to perform community service) to non-violent probation violators.
Seems like a pretty good idea, right? Why take the time and money needed to go to court over a minor probation violation like missing a court date or failing a drug test because you had a few drinks the night before a urine test?
Why not just allow the probation officers to decide that maybe a stint in a drug treatment facility or a couple hundred hours of community service would be punishment enough? Why send a non-violent offender back to a prison that is already overcrowded over a minor infraction of the requirements of their probation agreement?
A spokesperson for the Governor said his changes have been successful. Jennifer Donnals highlighted a reduction in people going to prison for minor probation violations and said the Governor’s new law resulted in “a reduction in the number of offenders on community supervision who return to prison for non-criminal violations by successfully returning those offenders to compliance through a system of proportionate and immediate responses.”
Dissension to Governor Haslam’s Plan
The Tennessee Criminal Court of Appeals said Haslam’s wide-ranging Public Safety Act deprives defendants of their constitutional right to due process, and the changes made by Haslam would “encroach upon the judicial powers of the courts” by taking that power and putting it into the hands of probation officers.
Tennessee Judge Camille R. McMullen wrote that for the most part, defendants did not have the chance to challenge punishments handed out by probation officers in the Governor’s new system like they would if they actually went to court and heard their cases by a judge and/or jury.
At the time of this writing, the Tennessee State Attorney General’s office is reviewing the decision and does not yet know if an appeal to the Tennessee Supreme Court will be necessary.
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