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Transcript: Criminal Justice Reform Roundtable

Wednesday, April 07, 2021 | 09:19am

Governor Bill Lee:

All of you on the call, including the press. We have a live link, a feed link for Tennesseans across the state to see this opportunity for us to talk about something that's really important to me. Thank you all for joining, those of you who are looking in, and those of you who are on this video cast. So I'll ask anybody that's on to mute their line unless they're speaking. And we'll get started. As you all know, it's a very important season in Tennessee, particularly as we talk about this issue of criminal justice reform. And that we have legislation before our general assembly right now, that is I believe life-changing for our state and a very important piece of work that we're in the middle of looking at as a state legislature. The folks on this call are experts, national experts in the subject.

Governor Bill Lee:

And I wanted Tennesseans, as we're in the middle of this season of talking about criminal justice reform, I wanted to hear from some of the national thought leaders around the country that have seen and heard this in other states. So we've invited them to join us. And I'm excited about that. 20 years ago, I got involved in the subject of criminal justice reform because I got involved in a prison ministry, called Men of Valor, that many of you've heard me talk about. Worked with re-entry, with mentoring men coming out of prison, employed formerly incarcerated individuals. I really saw firsthand beginning 20 years ago the tension and the push and pull between retribution and rehabilitation. I also saw what I thought was a system that wasn't really working for anybody. It wasn't working well for the victims. It wasn't working well for those that were incarcerated.

Governor Bill Lee:

And the recidivism rate was something that we clearly could improve on. And it started me thinking about this 20 years ago. When I became governor, I realized that we had a tremendous opportunity, or something that I had carried in my heart for a long time was now before me with an opportunity to make a change there. I also know that I think all of us have a innate profound sense of justice, and it's there, it's either formed by misinformation or real experiences. And understanding that that sense of justice is what we're after here. Recognizing that there's dignity in every human being. And it has to be the foundation of our policy as we look through... As we look at the criminal justice system and how it does fairly provide justice for victims and for those who are incarcerated.

Governor Bill Lee:

So it's really important to me. I'm really excited about this subject. I've been thinking about it for 20 years. Now, we're in spot in Tennessee to really make substantive change. And I'm grateful for the men and women on this call who are going to give us all a little more insight. Let me do a quick introductions of our speakers and then we'll get to it. Newt Gingrich, the former U.S. Speaker of The House. Certainly a prominent leader in the Republican Party, but more importantly for this conversation in conservative thought leadership in the country. We also have Pat Nolan, for which The Nolan Center for Justice at The American Conservative Union Foundation is named. Pat Nolan's also no stranger to the national landscape on conservative policy making. Former governor of Texas, Rick Perry. The man who was in my shoes when Texas embarked on its criminal justice reform and the decision-making there. We have Brooke Rollins, who I met at the White House.

Bill Lee:

She served in the Trump administration. We met and talked about criminal justice reform, about workforce development, about a number of things. She's had an experience in a major national public policy think tank and then with the Trump administration. And we also have on the line, Josh Smith, a Tennessean, who is a friend now. Someone I met and invited to be a part of our criminal justice investment task force. He has walked the walk on second chances. Creating second chances, both for himself and for others. Building a multimillion dollar company and then using that success to create The 4th Purpose Foundation. So these are all important voices in the subject. And let's give him a chance to speak. Speaker, we'll go with Newt Gingrich first. You have certainly seen the Republican Party, but more importantly, as I said earlier, conservative thought through many seasons. Give us a perspective, your wisdom on how conservatives look at new policy frontiers or what seemed to be relatively new policy frontiers for many, issues like criminal justice reform.

Newt Gingrich:

Well, look, first of all, we're often cautious, which is not a bad thing for conservatives. I think we don't need to rush to every new idea as soon as it emerges. I got involved with this in part because Chuck Colson, who had been in the Nixon White House, and ended up going to jail after Watergate, really, I think had a profound religious conversion experience and helped develop an entire approach to faith-based prisons. And in Texas in particular, they took to heart what Colson was doing, which was trying to genuinely change the heart of the prisoner. And they had remarkable breakthroughs in having far fewer people go back to prison a second time, so the recidivism rate, as it's called, dropped very dramatically, specifically in the prisons that had adopted this faith-based approach.

Newt Gingrich:

Pat Nolan came along through a very similar experience and really became, in my mind, Chuck Colson's partner. And I've worked with Pat, I guess, for almost 30 years now, and he developed the whole concept of Right on Crime, and it was sort of a double entendre saying you could be conservative and you could also be doing the right things on crime. And ironically conservative governors in particular, I think of Governor Perry, who did an amazing job at Texas, but also Governor Deal of my home state, who happened to have a son who was a drug court judge, and he really carried his father to a deeper appreciation of the need to help people be prepared to re-enter society.

Newt Gingrich:

I think he really convinced him, both at a Christian human level, and at a practical level in terms of the cost of the program, something which you're dealing with in Tennessee, where the latest numbers were that it cost about $23,000 a year to keep a prisoner and we spend $10,000 a year on students in high school. There's clearly something wrong with our structure here when we basically have two and a half students in each cell rather than having them in school.

Newt Gingrich:

I was very tough on crime. In fact, I would say I helped make a major mistake in the 90s because we inappropriately used much, much tougher standards for crack cocaine than for regular cocaine and had a devastating effect on the black community in ways that I look back on as one of the great policy mistakes that I participated in, in my career.

Newt Gingrich:

You began to realize, and I want to draw a distinction here. This is not a George Soros, elect District Attorneys who don't believe in crime, who refuse to prosecute, et cetera, that kind of thing which is destroying San Francisco and in Philadelphia has led the Democratic Party to repudiate the current District Attorney because he won't prosecute criminals. This is an effort to say something very different one.

Newt Gingrich:

One, there are violent people who should be kept away from the rest of society, but it's a very small number compared to the total prison population. Two, it's both inhumane and dumb to have somebody under your control, fail to teach them, fail to prepare them, put them back on the street where the only thing they learn is how to be a smarter criminal, and then be shocked that they show back up in prison. It makes for a society which is unsafe and a society which is both wasting lives and wasting money.

Newt Gingrich:

Around the country, we saw very solid conservatives, I mean, it'd be very hard to argue that either Nathan Deal or Rick Perry are not absolutely solid conservatives, but they looked at this both as a values question about human beings, as a financial question about the budget, and as a practical long-term approach that said, does it work?

Newt Gingrich:

What we have found in the states that adopt this, and I commend you, governor, for bringing your personal experience in prison and the testimony you had in prison, the people you work with in prison, having the courage to bring it into the Governor's Office to propose serious reforms and then get people from around the country who have been doing this for a long time.

Newt Gingrich:

The fact is that over 90% of the people who are in prison will get out. The question is, will they get out better prepared to be in society, better prepared to be re-integrated, better prepared to earn a living, better prepared to take care of their family, or will they get out having been brutalized and isolated and having no capacity to earn a living and having no capacity to take care of their family?

Newt Gingrich:

I think true conservatism has to take the position that we're, in fact, going to help people. And one of the folks, and this has been a very bipartisan issue, I give President Trump a lot of credit because he reached out to people like Van Jones and Jesse L. Jackson, he brought people into the White House, and Brooke played a real role in this, and the result was ultimately he even had Mrs. Alice Johnson, who herself had been in prison, an African-American woman, at the National Convention, introducing his daughter, who then introduced him. I mean, a fairly high profile position that you would not have associated with the Republican Party 20 years ago.

Newt Gingrich:

But I think Trump got it in his heart that people deserve a second chance and that when it's possible he wanted to help them have that second chance. So you've seen a migration.

Newt Gingrich:

The last thing I would say is I think that it's very profoundly conservative to think about having both a re-entry program that reduces recidivism, having diversion programs, and this is where Governor Deal really, I think, had an epiphany from his son, who was a drug court judge, and to recognize that we want to plan from the day you enter prison, how you're going to leave prison.

Newt Gingrich:

Again, I'm distinguishing. If you're a hardcore, if you're a rapist, if you're an armed robber, if you're a murderer, then protecting society from you is a very different question, and those people ought to be in separate facilities where they can't infect the people who've had modest crimes but now are put in there, in effect, a university for crime. And so I would separate out the violent people and I'd be very tough about violent people.

Newt Gingrich:

As I said earlier, I disagree totally with the Saros model, that you can steal $900 and we won't consider it a crime, which is what's going on in San Francisco, where one major drug chain has closed all 10 of their stores because they just can't operate.

Newt Gingrich:

Governor, I commend what you're doing. I hope that the legislature will look very seriously. I think it is the essence of conservatism to adopt long-term policies that are better for the human being, better for the budget, and, in the long run, lead to a safer and healthier society, and you're doing exactly the right thing.

Governor Bill Lee:

Thank you, sir. I really appreciate those words. And you, said so many things that I saw play out and I believe are true. And to hear your view of that, and your historical view of it, is incredibly important, so I appreciate that.

Governor Bill Lee:

You said you'd known and/or worked with Pat for 30 years, and Pat, you certainly have had a long history in this subject. And when I talked about my work in prison ministry and re-entry program, you've had a great deal of experience with that as well, but you've seen this be navigated in states across the country. You've seen it in red states and blue states.

Governor Bill Lee:

We have a conservative legislature. The majority of our legislature is conservative. What advice would you have for us just as we consider this in our legislature, both Democrats and Republicans, what would you say to our leaders here?

Pat Nolan:

First, that this, to underscore what Speaker Gingrich said, this is an inherently conservative approach to justice. We, of course, want the offenders held accountable, but to do it in the least restrictive and most cost-effective way.

Pat Nolan:

Frankly, conservatives, myself included, when I was the Republican leader of the Assembly in California, much like Newt, I supported several things that expanded the prison system in California, including carrying the bill to open up the state supermax, Pelican Bay, and I didn't realize that the system itself was sending a lot of folks to prison were just mad at, when we thought the people that were going away we were afraid of.

Pat Nolan:

Of course, as Newt said, we need prison space for those that truly pose a threat to society, but for a lot of the folks in prison there are other ways to hold them accountable that aren't as destructive to their families and as costly to the state.

Pat Nolan:

Conservatives, I think, should not automatically accept the way things are done. We see problems. And I think you've recognized as governor the current system is costly and, frankly, in a way that doesn't make the people of Tennessee safer. And we conservatives have said, we see the problems, but unlike the Soros gang, who want to just destroy the system, we want to improve it.

Pat Nolan:

Again, we need people locked up that are dangerous, but we've overdone it. And your reforms, which wed alternatives but also with preparing the inmates for release. I really salute you for your support for Men of Valor. That is a wonderful program, because, as I worked with Chuck Colson for 18 years in the office right next to him, and he devoted his whole life to this. And the change that should occur inside prison is not only of the habits, but the hearts of the offenders, and Men of Valor does both, works with them to get back on their feet, but also helps change their hearts. And I salute you for that.

Pat Nolan:

To conservatives in the legislature, I'd say, this is the smart way to deal with crime. And by the savings from reducing the prison population intelligently, you can fund other programs that help prepare the inmates while they're inside to be better neighbors when they get out.

Governor Bill Lee:

That's right. Thank you for that. I do think one of the things that programs like Men of Valor, and programs like them, do is really intervene with these individuals that are incarcerated on all kinds of levels, anger management, addiction management, parenting classes, job training, things that are going to end with, in the case of Men of Valor, faith-based counseling, things that are going to condition them and prepare them for when they get out.

Governor Bill Lee:

What do you think, one quick follow up to you and then we'll go to Governor Perry, what do you think is the most consistent challenge that you've seen as states have approached this across the country?

Pat Nolan:

The first is the Soros problem. They've seized the term criminal justice reform, but actually they're not for reforming it, they're for undermining it, as Newt said. Chesa Boudin in San Francisco and Gascon in Los Angeles, these people don't believe in the system, and from inside they're trying to erode it. And it's hard to separate them because the press loves to highlight them.

Pat Nolan:

But instead, we need to look at states like Georgia, Utah, Texas, you're going to hear about from governor of Texas, they were the pioneer in this, and they showed that you can safely save costs to the prison system by reducing the population while also keeping the public safer. The crime rate in Texas is now at levels it was in 1967, which is astounding that they've been able to cut crime while also reducing the prison population.

Pat Nolan:

The second problem are prosecutors. The old saying is, if you're a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. And of course we need good prosecutors, but the fact of the matter is they've tended to oppose any reform that reduces any of the hammers they have over defendants, and without considering the costs. They don't bear the burden. When somebody gets sent to prison for a term longer than is necessary, they don't bear the cost, the state does and the local community. And so while we need to listen to prosecutors, because they have a tough job, we also need to take into account the consequences to the rest of the budget and even to the Department of Corrections budget.

Pat Nolan:

That's been a challenge because prosecutors do have credibility with us, but what we've found is there are several leading former prosecutors that are very outspoken in support of these reforms. Ed Meese, former Attorney General of the United States, Ken Cuccinelli, former Attorney General of Virginia, Hal Stratton, former Attorney General of New Mexico, all these are Republicans who support these reforms. So I think just educating legislators that listen to prosecutors, but don't presume that they have the entire picture in mind.

Governor Bill Lee:

Thank you, Pat. And I appreciate your words and your works, sir. Governor Perry, Pat called you a pioneer and Texas clearly was a leader in criminal justice reform, and there has been a lot of the outcomes there have been part of the inspiration for other states to really weigh into this.

Governor Bill Lee:

Way into this. When you started this, or when you were in a position of leadership, you really didn't have the models from other states to look at. How did you get buy in on this? And, and why do you think people understood that this is actually the right thing to do?

Rick Perry:

Yeah. Governor, thank you for the opportunity to work with you on this. And if I may, I think we're probably going to hear from Brooke Rollins, but I'd like for her to unmute her mic as well and ask her to opine from time to time in my short period here that I'm going to talk, because she was a very important part of this. She worked in the governor's office as my deputy general counsel, and then she also came in as the head of the Texas Public Policy Foundation. And Brooke, you might have to mute yours because we're getting a little mixed [inaudible 00:31:01] there. But anyway, the point is the Public Policy Foundation was very helpful for me. If I could governor, I want to go back in time. My journey started in the mid eighties. As some of you may know, I got elected the first three times as a Democrat in the state of Texas. And in the late eighties and the early nineties, Texas got really hard on crime.

Rick Perry:

We had speaker, Lieutenant governor and '90 through '94, Anne Richards was our governor. And we decided we were going to get really tough on crime and send a message to the public out there that we're tough. And we did, we built a lot of prisons. Spent billions of dollars. And as Pat Nolan has done a very good job of, we put a lot of kids in prison that we were mad at, but that we weren't afraid of. And what they did is once they got to prison, they learned how to be professional criminals. And so what we were doing rather than educating them and helping them change their lives, we did change their lives, but in a really negative way. And we started creating a graduate school for criminals, if you will, in these prisons.

Rick Perry:

So that went on for a decade and the cost of that to the people, the state in Texas, more importantly, governor, the lives that were lost. You know in your ministry the lives that have been saved in the prisons. And so many, we sent there and we never were able to retrieve them because they became those professional criminals. They were lost forever.

Rick Perry:

As I became a governor in the early two thousands, I think December of 2000 is when I took office. In the early two thousands, I had a conversation with a district judge, a Democrat district judge by the name of Crusoe from Dallas. And he asked me to really consider the concept of drug courts, of shock probation, of bootcamps, to try to get these kids, grab their attention, put them back on a track rather than sending them to prisons. And that along with the criminal justice reform that I think we passed in about 2007. I think I'm doing a, an editorial that will come out in Tennessee. Because I want to share with your members of the legislature a number of things, the least of which is not how smart this direction is, how conservative it is, how economically wise it is.

Rick Perry:

And having someone ... You can call me a lot of things, which I have been called a lot of things in my political life, but soft on crime is not one of them. And in Texas, we believe in dispensing justice. But there's nothing just when the system is broken in the sense of you're either putting people in prison that don't deserve to be there because of the very few prosecutors that are out of line. Most prosecutors are good and honest and decent men and women who are trying to do their job. But we also need to clearly stand up when mistakes have been made and fix those. And that's what this legislation does. And my hat's really off to you from the standpoint of your Republican members and for that matter, your Democrat members of the Tennessee legislature can go home to their constituents and say, "We were really smart on crime."

Rick Perry:

We spent X numbers of hundreds of millions, or potentially even billions of dollars. When Brooke comes on, she will share with you the new numbers and it is a stunning amount of money. And what Pat shared with you about the crime right down in the early sixties. This should be parroted all across the country. And I'm really proud and thankful that President Trump listened, he really gave proper thought to this and he saw the wisdom in it, and he implemented that program at the federal level. And I want to wrap up with this. That's really our job as state legislators, as state executives like yourself, it's to be innovators in the states. We've got 50 laboratories of innovation out there. We compete against each other. Man, when I was governor, I would try to recruit those businesses out of Nashville to come to Austin. Out of California to Texas.

Rick Perry:

Rick Scott and I had a great competition that went on between Florida and Texas and Bobby Jindal and I. They were great and wonderful friends, but we were competitors. And the innovation that comes from the states. And I will tell you this, it's not just about having taxes and regulation and legal system that doesn't over litigate, doesn't over regulate, doesn't over tax and have a skilled workforce. Those are the four things that you do as a governor that makes your state competitive. But it's about putting innovations like this criminal justice reform in place, that'll make Tennessee a place where people want to live, they want to move their business. And that's what your legislators, I hope will recognize, just like Donald Trump did.

Rick Perry:

That this isn't anything to run away from, this is something to embrace. This is something to stand up and I want to run from my reelection with this. And I think the prosecutors, as they see their legislators, they see their constituents understanding how smart and how right and righteous this criminal justice reform is, not only will it pass overwhelmingly, but Tennessee will be joining a litany of states that are laboratories of innovation that make this union a stronger place. Well done, governor.

Governor Bill Lee:

No. Well done on your part, sir. Thank you for articulating just what it's like to be a leader in that space. And Texas gave us a view of how it can work. We are grateful for the data driven evidence that comes out of Texas. That really does push us forward in this. And I know you mentioned Brooke. I know she was in part the brains behind a lot of this as well. Certainly worked with you and your administration, the Texas Public Policy think tank. Then in the Trump administration, Brooke, you and I have met and talked about this at length and had great conversations about it, besides our conversations about Herford cattle and the like, the things we share on the side. But I'm proud that you're on this call. I'm really glad it worked out this way. You understand this like few policy people do. And so give us your perspective a little bit on the challenges and how we've overcome them, how you have overcome them nationally and why this should happen here in our state.

Brooke Rollins:

Well, thank you, Governor Lee. I too, applaud you. I was just sitting here thinking that our first conversation was either about Herford cattle or criminal justice reform. I think it was criminal justice reform, but it may have been Herford cattle, which all of my kids show. So, it was great to meet you and what an honor to be part of this team. And all my compadres on the screen from my 30 plus year friend and mentor Rick Perry, to Newt Gingrich, who is just been a warrior for freedom for so long to Pat Nolan, who we're really standing on his shoulders today and so many others. It's an honor to be here with you and in the great state of Tennessee with so many of your partners, governor, and I applaud you for, again, as everyone has said for being so bold and fearless in terms of trying to do the right thing for the people of the great state of Tennessee. It's been an amazing, very unexpected ride in journey on criminal justice reform for me.

Brooke Rollins:

I finished my time as Rick Perry's policy director, and as his deputy general counsel in his first term, and was hired by a tiny little think tank no one had ever heard of, including me as the governor's policy director, so I often laugh, there's really nowhere to go, but up after that. But the Texas Public Policy Foundation. And at that time I had no idea I would spend 15 years of my career there. I had no idea we'd go from three employees when I started to more than 100 when I left to join the White House. I certainly had no idea that we would even pivot or launch into criminal justice reform. At the time when I took over 18 years ago, it was very typical conservative, very small little think tank, but we focused on taxes and school choice and tort reform. hose were the three issues.

Brooke Rollins:

And about a year in I'd hired a few more people. We were starting to build that strategy and how we move Texas in the right direction. I received a phone call from a gentleman from West Texas in oil and gas men named Tim Dunn, who I still work with today. And he said, "Brooke, I want you to rethink the way Republicans and conservatives think about criminal justice reform." And never even really thought much about it other than Texas was I a tough on crime state, and that was both Republicans and Democrats. And what that meant Anne Richards was as a Democrat was one of the toughest, building more prisons and putting people on them as long as possible. What I started to learn when I started to dig in is that America has 4% of the world's population, but 25% of the world's incarcerated.

Brooke Rollins:

That was the first statistic that absolutely stunned me. The second statistic, and I'll never forget was that of the people we're putting in prison, you all are using the number 90. The numbers that I have are 96% eventually come back into their communities. They try to reintegrate into their families and their homes. They try to get a job. And for the most part, these are not bad people, they just made bad decisions. So we started looking at that and then we started studying around the world some of the other systems that were working well or the crime rate was going down. And ultimately we came up with a package this was years ago, now that you know what? Do we really need to build three more prisons? That was in the state budget, or people were talking or asking for it at that time. This is 12, 13 years ago.

Brooke Rollins:

And is that necessary? And all the money we were spending on these new presents and what that looked like. So we set to work and we realized that when you have successful drug courts, successful veterans courts, focusing on our vets, the number of veterans in our prisons is astonishing. When you focus on rehabilitation, when you, instead of building more prisons, maybe put that money into education and certification programs, that ultimately you have a real shot at most importantly, improving the public safety in your communities and your cities and in your states. But you also become a culture of second chances. And I was all in. And when that friend of mine called me and talked about it, his whole approach and mine too, was based on scripture. That somehow in America, the government had taken away, even the way that we prosecute in our country is the state or the prosecutor or the locality versus the perpetrator.

Brooke Rollins:

Well, where is the victim in all this, and how do we bring the victim from a scripture perspective back into the conversation called restorative justice? So putting all of these pieces together, while at the same time in Texas working on cutting taxes and rolling back regulation and fixing our tort reform, our civil justice system from a plaintiff's lawyer, defense lawyer perspective. Working on school choice, fixing our healthcare, let's talk about criminal justice reform. And at that time, there may not have been any other than Pat Nolan and in his group with Mr. Colson talking about it from a conservative public safety perspective, but in Texas, we had, again, some fearless relentless leaders like repairing our organization really leaned in, we worked with some great Republicans. And this was 13 years ago. There was no other Republicans, no other conservatives, no other states that were really leaning in. But we realized that if bright red Texas who, to that point, had been solely focused on building more prisons, if we could do it, then we could really set an example for the rest of the country. I never in a million years believed or even would have thought of that I would have ended up in the West Wing of the White House, mapping out the same concepts and ideas. And it was up to President Trump. He obviously is a very get tough on crime leader, talking about how we really are and should be more punitive to those who are taking other people's lives, like drug dealers, et cetera. But on this he was really open to the concept, and eventually, if you read any of the events we did and heard him speak, you really saw his heart for this.

Brooke Rollins:

But in Texas, the story tells itself. Over 10 years, we closed eight adult prisons. I believe all of these 10 years were under Rick Perry's 127-year reign as governor of Texas. But in the 10 years that I was running the Texas Public Policy Foundation and working on criminal justice reform, we closed eight adult prisons, 11 juvenile facilities, which is... That could be a little bit scary if we didn't have a plan to back it up, but we did. But the crime rate over that period of time fell more than 30%. That's just a remarkable testament. You think about the lives saved from improved criminal safety, public crime safety, you think about the lives saved from second chances, you think about the lives saved from rebuilt families and rebuilt communities, and you really have a very, very compelling story to tell. So I'm really proud of what we did in Texas.

Brooke Rollins:

And of course, Georgia was very close behind us. Nathan Deal was elected governor, and I think one of the first phone calls he made was to my team at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, Mark Levin, to ask him to come and help do the same program in Georgia, and they did. Sam Brownback in Kansas was not far behind. Matt Bevin in Kentucky, very close by, too. Mike Pence, Governor Mike Pence of Indiana, really leaned into this over the last decade as well. So we're so excited that our brothers and sisters in Tennessee, led by you, Governor Lee, are so willing to make this happen. And believe me, I know, and certainly had a little bit of it in Texas, maybe a little bit more pushback in Washington when we were working on the First Step Act. But ultimately, at the end of the day, the data speaks for itself, the research speaks for itself, the polling, the people of this country. I know in Texas, and I was looking at some numbers in Tennessee, the vast majority of the citizens of Tennessee believe that something can be done to make the system better and more fair and more just and ultimately safer.

Brooke Rollins:

So thank you for this opportunity. I'm happy to stay on and answer any questions. I'm really grateful to your leadership, Governor.

Governor Bill Lee:

Thank you, Brooke. I'm really grateful you decided to join this call. Now I'm reminded of just why we asked you to do that. You voice so much that needs to be heard, and you have such a historical perspective and you've seen it done. So thanks for weighing in.

Governor Bill Lee:

Josh Smith, who I'm excited for those of you who don't know him to meet. Josh is a man in this state who is a voice for criminal justice reform. He spent time incarcerated. Then has since built a multimillion dollar company and had great success in his re-entry story. But his story is much more than that. I think it would be helpful, Josh, if you could just talk a little bit about what the game-changers were in your story and so how we as policymakers can make more stories like yours the reality, and really what your experience has been in the space of becoming a re-entry story that we all want to see. You've hired men out of prison. That's something that we did, but you've done much more than I have and you know the particular value that that brings to this equation and how we could do a better job of that in Tennessee. So give us a little bit of perspective from someone who knows, frankly, knows more about this than probably any of us on the call.

Josh Smith:

Sure. Thank you, Governor Lee. And I'll just say what an honor it is to be on this with so many pioneering leaders with criminal justice. It's obviously personal to me. As I've grown and as I've got through this situation, in the earlier years there weren't many fighting for this. Frankly, I felt like a lone conservative many a times arguing with some of my liberal friends on why conservative principles still make sense. But for me, it started out, my father, just a quick overview, my father left the home at two. Around 11 or 12 had an abusive situation my mom had moved me away from. I was fortunate to have a mother that worked her butt off to try to do everything to help us survive. By the time I'd come back into the home, I was just a different kid. By the time I was 16, I had 10 felonies in the state of Tennessee as a juvenile. I quit school at the 10th grade, and you can write the rest of the book. Ended up in federal prison at 21, charged with a drug charge. At that time, everybody, including myself, would have voted against any success in my life. As I went into prison, there weren't very many programs, there weren't things there. You're given a date that you're going to get out, and that's it.

Josh Smith:

Fortunately for me, I was sent to a federal prison where a lot of people, business people that didn't pay taxes were, or business people that did different things. And so even though I was a drug offender... I was a low security, so I'm in with all these executives, and I began to watch and I began to listen. I always thought that it was kind of us and them. It was those people are successful. It's those people will have financial success or those things. And then I got to live with them, and I realized that a lot of it came down to what home they were born in compared to the one that I was, what school they went to compared to me. And I began to listen and I would... Fortunately, several of those took me under their wing and mentored me. Now, my mentality had changed, but my situation was the same.

Josh Smith:

When I got out, my wife drove me around three days to beg for a $6 an hour job. This is just 18 years ago. I started working that job, I was in a halfway house, and as soon as I was released from the halfway house, she lived in government housing, so we were kicked out of the housing. You can't be a felon living in that housing. So later I started this little business, and the people that I could get to come to work for me are these people in the same situation. I began to hire and I began to mentor and my company began to grow. And over those years, as you said, it grew into a larger company that I sold about a year and a half ago.

Josh Smith:

I've watched the difference of people... As many could look at me and say, "Leave him alone. It's over. He's a criminal. He's done a lot of bad," not just the charge I was in prison for, but even as a juvenile and you could point to me as a kid and not really dig into my life much, and you could just say, "Hey, it's worth spending it on somebody else." But in fact what I've learned is not just in my life, but I watched it proven over and over and over again, with the proper investment, people can change. Now, I'm not saying all people. There are some that because of whatever reasons have issues and it's probably safer for them to be in prison, but the percentage is so small. When we hear DAs or we hear other people talking about it, you would think that percentage is 95%. Yet, as it's been pointed out, over 95% are going to be our neighbors again someday soon.

Josh Smith:

And so when I look at these things and I see... There was a conservative senator that said something yesterday that really impacted me. He said, "I don't understand all of the things about these bills. I don't understand all of what's going on, but what I do understand is what we've done has not worked." In 1980, there was about 5,000 people incarcerated in the state of Tennessee. Now there's about 30,000, yet all of our rankings are in the 40th percentile compared to other states with violent crime and with crime in general. So we've not gotten a return. As conservatives, I believe we look at these things, we look at how to spend money, and we want a return on that investment. So for me, Governor, everything I fight for is to invest in people, to give them a chance. And for those that don't take it, we've got a place for them. There's going to be prison beds, plenty of them, for them to fill those up. But I think without giving that investment and making that investment, giving them the best chance of success, all we're doing is hurting ourselves as a society and making it a much unsafer place to live.

Governor Bill Lee:

Thank you, Josh. Hearing your voice and hearing someone who's lived this out just really is a validation of everything that's been said up until this point by the experts on the call. They're talking about you and about how we can create policy changes that will create an environment where there are many, many more of you. That's what started this for me many years ago. I said at the beginning, 20 years ago. So 20 years ago, I met men in prison and I sat with them across the table and I asked them about their childhood and their lives. It gave me a great insight into why many of them were there. It started me down a road of thinking just how it is that we should think about individuals differently and that we should think about the justice system differently.

Governor Bill Lee:

This is hard work. The easiest thing to do is treat everyone the same and make a bunch of rules and shut the doors and walk away. The hard work is to recognize that every distinct human being is different. And if we work hard, we can determine who needs to be there, who doesn't need to be there, who will have better outcomes with an alternative sentence, who will be successful when they re-enter with a different package of services around them with a different approach to the way they re-enter. This is hard work, but it's worth it because it is life-changing work. When I think about the things that we're doing here and the opportunities that I have to engage in from my office, this is legacy work that we can all be proud of, primarily because it's going to impact human beings' lives for good. And that's both the victims and the community at large, and those that are incarcerated as well.

Governor Bill Lee:

I could talk about this all afternoon. I have loved this subject for years, and I'm most excited about it right now in the state, but we've been on for almost an hour now and we want to respect your time and also the listeners. But I do want to say thank you. Deep, deep gratitude to every single one of you and the unique things that you brought, not only to this call, but the things that you've done for this country, the things that you've done for the people in the individual places that you have served, because I know. And, Josh, you know this, everyone on this call knows this because we've been involved in this work and we've seen the trajectory of people's lives go dramatically different because of changes in attitude and changes in perspective and changes in policy. When I came into office, I said, "I know I will not do everything perfectly, but my heart is that I wake up every day and think, 'How can I make life better for every single person that lives in this state?'" And that means every single person, including those that are victims, including those that are in the community, and including those that are sitting in a prison cell right now in the state of Tennessee.

Governor Bill Lee:

We can do that. We can have a situation that is beneficial to all involved. It's going to take a lot of work. It's going to take a lot of support. You all on this call have been incredibly supportive to me and helping us as we navigate this road, and I deeply appreciate your voices and your support and the work that you've done. We will continue to stay connected as we make progress here in Tennessee. Thank you all for joining. Thanks for those who have looked in. Thanks for those members of the media who have engaged in this as well. I'm excited. I was excited about this call and more excited about that work that we have ahead of us and the opportunity we have before. So thank you very much. We'll close it down.

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