Policy Brief: Creating Better Outcomes Through Incentive Funding


March 20, 2018 12:49PM

The Problem

Tennessee’s prison population and recidivism rates have exploded. While the nation’s imprisonment rate fell by 8.4 percent over the past five years, Tennessee’s inmate population grew by 11.7 percent. Additionally, Gov. Bill Haslam’s Task Force on Sentencing and Recidivism found that “from 2010, 46 percent of people released from prison or jail in Tennessee were incarcerated again within three years.” This problem is even worse at the local level, where jail recidivism rates and probation revocations remain astronomically high. This does nothing to improve public safety and places huge burdens on taxpayers.

The Solution

We can start reversing this trend by creating pilot programs to incentivize better outcomes in the corrections system. By tying county sheriff or probation department re-entry programs’ funding to outcomes, we can hope to see better results. The result is a win-win, saving taxpayers money, while also incentivizing probation and sheriff’s departments to help Tennesseans successfully re-enter society.

How to Do It

Currently, prisons and probation departments are funded by headcount, creating a perverse incentive to keep as many people in the system as possible. Restructuring funding based upon outcomes would reverse this incentive. Funding models based upon lower recidivism rates and probation revocations would encourage more effective services and in the long run, reduce costs for local governments.

However, it is usually difficult for local governments to dedicate funds for such re-entry programs upfront with their limited resources. Grants provided by the state government to local jurisdictions would give locals the flexibility to create, develop and experiment with different models, which could then be adopted across the state. In order to receive funding, programs could apply to the Department of Correction stating program objectives, goals, and metrics. Once selected, programs could receive the majority of its grant upfront to start or expand a re-entry program. The programs would receive the remaining grant amount only after meeting clearly measurable outcomes aimed at reducing recidivism or probation revocations. This would not only provide the necessary funding for some local sheriff and probation departments to launch re-entry programs, but also hold them accountable to taxpayers for obtaining the results needed to help shut the revolving door of our criminal justice system.

Who This Impacts

Ashley Murray had a drug problem. Like so many others in East Tennessee, she found herself addicted to methamphetamines and opiates. Over the course of two years, she bounced in and out of Knoxville jails five different times, always due to a probation violation. Finally, she had enough, she realized that in order to get clean she would have to move out of her environment and find a support system.

She moved back home to Cookeville where her family was located and found help with a local ministry, This is Living. She finally felt like she had the tools she needed to get clean, there was just one problem. Despite her constant requests and pleas, her probation program in Knoxville consistently denied her a transfer to a system in Cookeville. That meant she had to go back and forth from Cookeville to Knoxville every other week. With thousands in fees and fines that she owed, plus a $45 per month probation fee and a $20 per month drug test, the cost of going back and forth was brutal. There seemed to be no end in sight because to get off of probation she would have to pay back all of her fees and fines, but the alternative of falling back into her old environment was deadly. Luckily, she had a family and support system that helped her get back and forth, but she saw many others who were not so lucky-those without a car or even a driver license. They were trapped by the system and doomed to repeat their offenses due to a drug addiction that was never treated and their inability to move out of their environment.

Ashley still struggled to find employment, and her requirement of returning to Knoxville made it even more difficult to find a schedule she could regularly work. Cookeville’s local jail is overcrowded, with close to 125 women and only approximately 30 beds; more than half of the women are in jail for probation violations. Ashley could easily be one of those women if she missed a visit or a payment, and that terrifies her because all she wants is to get clean and get back on her feet, but the system makes it very difficult to get back on the right track.

More Resources

“Advancing Sensible Justice in Tennessee”
Beacon Center of Tennessee


Ron Shultis is the Policy Coordinator at the Beacon Center of Tennessee.