Tony Parker
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January 20, 2022

TDOC Commissioner Tony Parker: Reflections on 38 years of service, and advice on using data to advance the mission of corrections

American Correctional Association President, and (now former) Commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Correction (TDOC) has just concluded his 38 years of service in Tennessee Correction and more than five years as TDOC’s Commissioner. As he turns the page to begin his tenure as President of the 4th Purpose Foundation, Recidiviz CEO Clementine Jacoby speaks with him about what he views as the true mission of corrections. 

Throughout the conversation Commissioner Parker offers his hard-earned wisdom and speaks directly to the evolving role of applying data to changes in policy and practice for the next generation of correctional leaders in America. Here we’re highlighting a few excerpts of Tony’s incredible advice and sharing a video recording of the full conversation for others to learn from and build on the foundation of his extraordinary experience. 

Here’s Tony on:

Using data for decision making in corrections as a field

I've had lawmakers ask me - do you have any data to support your educational programs? Do you have any data that talks about what it really means to put someone through a substance use program? How does it really affect the outcomes?

When I started as Commissioner we didn't have a lot of data to go on. It was in a system and a database that we didn't know how to use or pull the information from. But today we're in a much better place. That's one of the biggest accomplishments of the department that we've moved in that direction to really follow the science.

You can't follow the science without the data. And it all works together to enable you to make good decisions on how to spend taxpayer dollars and on how we complete the mission of corrections in Tennessee. 

Surfacing insights from the people that are being impacted 

Your best ideas come from the people who see it in color every day. The probation and parole division in the community is supervising, in Tennessee, over 70,000 people. You had better listen to them and pay attention. 

I remember I took a tour one time through all of our prisons and all of our district offices in probation and parole. Doing that was the first time I truly understood the issues with transportation, for people in supervision in the community. It just never really hit me until I saw it in color in these offices and hearing these probation officers talk about how you can have the best programs in the world, and if the individuals don't have transportation and get to it from these programs, they're no good.

Seeing it again in color, it helps you understand that and listening to the people who do the work in the field is the key to success.

Effectively tracking the impact of recently enacted legislation

It is always important to acknowledge that we could be wrong. As you implement new legislation and you put new policy out there, having the data to show you what the results of that new policy and new laws really are and what effect they're having on our state is key because without it, you're just taking somebody's assumption.

We need to be looking at and following the data to see if the legislation that was passed is giving us the desired results that we look for, or if we are surprised and find that we need to make tweaks or adjustments in the legislation or in the policy. 

I know that when I look at evidence-based supervision across this state and risk-based supervision, we have communities and districts and courts that will not allow us to use some of these things that we think are best practices. We know that the recidivism numbers and return rates look a little different in those areas. What does that really mean?

Following the data and tracking that data over a period of time will give us solid information to make better decisions on. It's critical moving forward in Tennessee that as we as we tweak the policies and the laws that we have for criminal justice reform, we look at good data to make evidence-based decisions. It is definitely the best route to go.


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