NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) — Once known for its thriving business and cultural districts, the neighborhood where Jefferson Street sits has since been stricken by poverty and high incarceration rates.
In March 2018, a study by the Brookings Institution found the 37208 zip code in North Nashville had the highest incarceration rate in the nation at about 14%. The study spurred some community leaders into action, and out of it, the 37208 Special Committee was born.
“At that time there were seven special committees created in the leadership of the vice mayor. These were created in October of 2019. One of those committees being the 37208 Committee that I had a chance to chair,” said District 21 Council Member Brandon Taylor.
It’s now been nearly three years since the 37208 Committee released its final report and recommendations for combatting incarceration in the community, including grants and other ideas bolstering community programs and businesses.
However, the effects have been mixed. Not long after the final report was released, a tornado tore through North Nashville, causing damage the community is still recovering from to this day. The country was just learning of COVID-19 only weeks later.
“We were hot and heavy working through these recommendations and finding ways to move them forward, and then we had a tornado and the pandemic,” Taylor said. “So, we were kind of pushed off base a little.”
Preliminary reports show crime is down in North Nashville
Without a thorough, state-led study, officials are unsure whether the incarceration rate has dropped since 2018. However, preliminary reports indicate crime in the Metro Nashville Police Department’s north precinct is down.
Overall violent offenses in North Nashville decreased 1.7%, with homicide down 37% and rape dropping 27.8% last year. Aggravated assault and larceny also decreased in 2022, while there were slight increases in robbery, burglary and auto theft.
The change is even more significant when looking at data from five years ago.
Compared to 2018, nearly every type of crime in North Nashville decreased in 2022. Robbery dropped 38.7%, and overall property offenses were down 18.3% compared to 2018. Violent crime decreased 4.6% and general part one offenses were down 14.1%.
Transforming policing practices was a prevention method identified in the 37208 Committee’s report, along with reducing racial disparities in the criminal justice system. Taylor said committee members wanted to find ways to “have better community policing.”
Some of the recommendations drawn from past studies focused on modernizing Nashville’s policing practices, reducing racial disparities in traffic stops, and reducing the social costs related to traffic stops.
Taylor said he believes the MNPD has done a better job of engaging with the community and educating officers on “societal norms.”
However, it takes time to rebuild relationships, and Taylor said many of the problems seen in the Brookings Institution report can’t be solved just by transforming policing practices.
“There’s still a lot of work to do to create more trust in the police. Some folks trust the police in the community and some folks don’t,” Taylor said. “Some folks have a right not to trust the police in the community.”
Poverty and ‘despair’ still linger in 37208
Larry Turnley, who is now 50 years old, has lived in North Nashville his whole life. He was born only years after the state built an interstate through the middle of North Nashville in the late 1960s, displacing thousands of residents and business owners.
“There’s a history here that we have to understand,” Taylor said. “The state came through and put an interstate through it, which one, cut off this part of town to the rest of the city; and then two, removed homes and businesses that were vibrant in this community.”
Turnley recalled a “tribal-like” feeling in the community as a kid that was over time disrupted by a drug epidemic, lowered property values, and rising poverty. Like many kids growing up in the area, Turnley said his father was “locked up his whole life.”
“He kind of got affected by that whole era,” Turnley said. “It just trickled on down to me doing the same thing to my children.”
Turnley was incarcerated for 20 years before returning home in 2016. When he came back to North Nashville, Turnley said it felt “like a new city.” He added that the destruction can be seen just by driving down Jefferson Street.
“From the 60s, when all of that destruction took place, there was no repair,” he said. “Anytime you have buildings that are dilapidated or just torn down, then that’s going to breed crime, that’s going to breed despair. That’s just what took root in North Nashville.”
High rates of poverty often correlate with crime and incarceration. The Brookings Institution report indicated that in 2018 child poverty in the 37208 zip code was at 42% compared to the national rate of 14%.
At the time, the 37208 zip code had one of the lowest income rates in Nashville. Taylor said several families were making less than $14,000 annually. That cycle of poverty would continue into adulthood with many becoming incarcerated later on.
“It wasn’t necessarily people committing crime, but people committing crime out of survivalist mode,” he said. “If you’re bringing less than $14,000 home, you have to find a way to live. Just for the basic necessities.”
Today, the 37208 zip code has a median household income of $54,296, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau. However, the area still has a poverty rate of about 29.3%, which is double that of the rest of Nashville, Murfreesboro, and Franklin.
Turnley said high cost of living is pushing many North Nashville residents to the outskirts of Nashville and neighboring cities like Clarksville, Springfield, and Lebanon. It also poses issues for former inmates like him who are trying to reenter society.
“Some people aren’t able to get government assistance like food stamps,” he said. “I wasn’t even able to get food stamps because I had a prior drug offense that happened 20-something years ago. I couldn’t get food stamps just for my return back into society, just to assist me.”
Committee-backed grant gives business owners a boost
Where Turnley did find help was in the 37208 Fund, which was launched in Oct. 2021 in order to help people make a difference in North Nashville. The fund was among the recommendations made by the 37208 Committee.
“Sometimes people need a hand up. The 37208 fund is just that,” Taylor said. “It gives people that are really working hard to better the community an opportunity to receive financial dollars to help build capacity within their organizations, business or nonprofit.”
Turnley received a $10,000 grant in April last year. The grant not only helped him keep his business, The Refuse Engineers, afloat but allowed him to help out the community by cleaning debris from alleyways in North Nashville.
Turnley also used the funds to hire residents in North Nashville who had been formerly incarcerated. Together, they removed over 10,000 pounds of trash and debris that had been illegally dumped in alleyways.
“They took pride in it, and it made me feel good to be able to employ community members,” Turnley said.
However, as the grant money ran out in August, the trash began to pile up again. While the fund is giving many business owners a boost, Turnley said it is more like a “Band-Aid on a broken arm.”
“Since the grant money ran out, you’re going to see mattresses and all this stuff still here, which breeds crime,” he said. “If they could specifically hire someone to just do that job and be appointed to cleaning the alleys, making sure the alleys are clean, that would be a great start.”
Taylor said the 37208 Fund is not depleted and there are plans to distribute more funds this year. However, the 37208 Committee also recognized there were systematic issues that needed to be addressed in order to help the people of North Nashville.
“When we think about it, I try not to look at the incarceration rate. We didn’t set out to lower the incarceration rate per se. Of course, we want to lower the incarceration rate,” he said. “But we set out to answer the questions of why people were being incarcerated.”
Other ‘wins’ for North Nashville
One of the main ways Taylor said the 37208 Committee members wanted to help support North Nashvillians was by reforming fines and fees in the criminal justice system.
After filing legislation to complete a study, Taylor said the committee found several fines and fees were “more punitive than helpful.” Committee members then worked with the Criminal Court Clerk’s Office and Mayor’s Office to rework the budget for the following year.
“That was one of the ways that we started, and that was really exciting,” Taylor said. “That was one of the first goals that we met in our recommendations. The needle in government moves really slow and it’s tough to see that. So, when you see the wins, you get excited.”
Taylor said the committee was also successful in reducing driver’s license citations, along with supporting programs that continue to help people get their driver’s licenses reinstated and bi-monthly expungement clinics.
In Nov. 2022, the 37208 Committee also saw another success when the city broke ground on the Dr. Ernest Rip Patton, Jr. North Nashville Transit Center at 26th Avenue and Clarksville Highway, which Taylor said will increase accessibility to the city.
‘All these things are good, but what’s tangible?’
However, he acknowledged that there is still much more work to be done. Taylor said the city is exploring “unique ways” to add more affordable housing to the area and ways to invest in youth within and outside of schools.
“The understanding is that in this city and in this country, if you don’t have ‘x’ amount of dollars you may not be able to survive,” Taylor said. “And I think that is one of the areas we have to really think about. How do we provide better education?”
Turnley said he would like to see more tangible policies implemented to help people who have been incarcerated reenter society.
“We’ve had enough streets named after our political leaders. The legislature just removed slavery from the constitution,” he said. “All these things are good, but what’s tangible? What’s coming from these things that’s going to repair the community?”
Turnley and members of the Education Equal Opportunity Group recently crafted a bill that would allow automatic expungement of certain convictions after a specific passage of time from either imposition of sentence, release from parole or probation.
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The language of the Returning Citizens Redemption Act (RCRA) has been submitted to the Tennessee General Assembly legal department for filing as a draft bill.
“I would just ask that we come together, and we sit down and really focus on the people in this area and do something that’s going to be really impactful in their lives,” Turnley said. “If not, it’s just going to be a repeated cycle continuing to go on and the people are just going to continue to get pushed out.”