The likelihood of Tennessee lawmakers bringing back a committee focused on overseeing the state Department of Correction was bolstered on Wednesday when it was revealed that the House majority leader was working on such legislation.
The news came as the House State and Government subcommittee considered a bill sponsored by a Democrat to bring back the committee, which was eliminated in 2011.
Rep. Mike Stewart, D-Nashville, provided the committee some background, saying, "What the oversight committee traditionally did is allow the elected officials and the citizens of the state to get routine and consistent reporting from our corrections system."
The oversight committee was created in 1985 after the state's prison system was placed under the control of the federal courts, he said. Stewart pointed to the fact that lawmakers have recently held hearings to discuss corrections concerns after Tennessean and other media reports found issues in the state's prison system.
"The great thing about a corrections oversight committee is it can ensure that the people, through their elected representatives, consistently and systematically have some oversight over this particularly important area of our governmental operations," he said.
Andrew Lewis, a former deputy warden at the Bledsoe County Correctional Complex, told the panel the corrections oversight committee provided much-needed continuity in the operations of state prisons.
"What they did is they came around to institutions and looked at the deficiencies," he said, explaining that the committee ensured prisons were complying with requirements established by the group.
Despite a nearly $1 billion annual budget, 20,000 state-housed inmates and 6,000 employees, the Department of Correction does not have any direct legislative oversight, said Alex Friedmann, associate director of the Human Rights Defense Center, a nonprofit criminal justice reform organization.
Although Friedmann said the oversight committee was disbanded over fiscal concerns, reconstituting the committee would cost only about $117,000 annually, according to a financial analysis by legislative officials.
"Around one-tenth of 1 percent of the Tennessee Department of Correction's budget. This would be money well spent to provide oversight over this agency that affects so many people," Friedmann said.
Friedmann said the need for the bill is clear, pointing to media reports released in the past year that revealed escalating levels of violence in the state's prison system, as well as issues pertaining to the department's classification of assaults and employee dissatisfaction over the recently enacted 28-day work schedule.
Department of Correction Commissioner Derrick Schofield did not necessarily oppose Stewart's bill and told lawmakers he will defer to their judgment, though he did reference concerns.
"While we do appreciate the ultimate goal of the legislation to ensure accountability, we believe some of the requirements in this particular legislation will present significant difficulties for our work and staff," he said.
Rep. Bill Sanderson, R-Kenton, called Stewart's bill a comprehensive one that needed more consideration before the committee could advance it.
"You're on the right track here," Sanderson said, adding that House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick also is working on a bill that would re-establish the oversight committee.
The committee ultimately deferred taking any action on Stewart's bill, with Sanderson saying both oversight bills will be discussed next week.
A spokesman for McCormick confirmed he is working with the Department of Correction on a bill that would re-form the oversight committee. McCormick's bill is expected to be discussed next week when the committee meets again. Typically, the chances of a bill passing in the House are better if the legislation is sponsored by McCormick, the majority leader, than by a House Democrat.
Stewart said he looked forward to working with McCormick on the legislation. "It looks like, at least on the House side, we're going to have an oversight committee reach the floor, and I'm excited about that," he said.