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Tenn. lawmakers send ‘truth-in-sentencing’ bill to governor’s desk

The bill would prohibit inmates convicted in eight violent crime categories from using good behavior credits to reduce their sentences


In this Nov. 7, 2018, photo, Governor-elect Bill Lee speaks during a news conference in the Capitol in Nashville, Tenn.

AP Photo/Mark Humphrey

By Andy Sher
Chattanooga Times Free Press

NASHVILLE — Tennessee legislative Republican leaders’ “truth-in-sentencing” bill is now headed to Gov. Bill Lee, requiring people convicted in eight violent crime categories including attempted first-degree murder to serve 100% of their court-imposed sentences before becoming eligible for parole.

That comes after the measure was scaled back, the result of an apparent compromise reached between Lee, a Republican who has pushed several criminal justice reforms, and House Speaker Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville, and Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, the Republican Senate speaker, who are sponsors and have championed tough-on-crime legislation.

One bill section applies to people convicted in the eight violent-crime categories, which include carjacking. It would prohibit inmates from using credits they earn for good behavior and participation in prison programming to reduce their sentences, as is the case now.

The credits could still be used to obtain privileges and housing in less restrictive settings.

Another section would require people convicted of one of another 20 felony crimes to serve 100% of their sentence for offenses such as aggravated assault with a deadly weapon. However, that provision does allow inmates to use credits for good behavior and participating in prison programs to reduce their sentences to 85%.

“I want to create hope on the front end and take them out of the pipeline so that they don’t even go to prison,” Sexton told the House on Thursday. “That’s a better society for us. We also shouldn’t make law enforcement rearrest the same people 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10 times. There has to be a line somewhere. If you cross that line you may be held accountable differently.”

Critics charge the bill is too harsh.

“While it sounds tough on crime, there’s just not evidence that it works,” Senate Minority Leader Jeff Yarbro, D-Nashville, told colleagues during Senate floor debate earlier Thursday. “Fundamentally, it also goes against what we’re trying to achieve. We know when we send people to prison, most of them are going to come back out and re-enter our society. We want to decrease the likelihood they return to a life of crime.”

The list of bill critics includes some Republicans as well as the American Conservative Union and Tennessee-Americans for Prosperity, which have advocated for criminal justice reform.

Concerns about the bill include increased prison costs and overcrowding, along with removing incentives for inmates to behave in an already understaffed and stressed correctional system.

The speakers’ bill cleared the Senate early Thursday and won House approval later in the day.

Acceptable to Lee

During Senate debate, Republican Caucus Chairman Ken Yager of Kingston asked Sen. Jon Lundberg, R-Bristol (who was carrying the bill for McNally) whether the Lee administration was satisfied with the amendment.

“I think they are acceptable of it. Let me phrase it that way,” Lundberg replied.

The deal comes with Lee’s No. 1 legislative objective this year, creation of a new K-12 education funding formula, continuing to hang in the balance. The bill has yet to reach the floor.

While no one is openly saying the speakers have seized Lee’s school funding formula as a hostage in exchange for the governor agreeing not to veto the truth-in-sentencing bill, it’s not at all uncommon for legislation to become bargaining chips.

Earlier in the week, Republicans deleted Lee’s budget request for $150 million to create a Violent Crime Intervention Fund for law enforcement agencies across the state to invest in evidence-based programming and resources. It was suddenly restored but at $100 million with the money going to law enforcement.

Asked by the Times Free Press whether the governor would sign the sentencing bill or allow it to become law without his signature, Lee Communications Director Laine Arnold wasn’t ready to say.

“I anticipate we’ll have more to say about that next week,” she said in a text.

Lawmakers head back to the Capitol this week for what they hope are their final few days in the 2022 legislative session.

Bill changes

Legislative Republicans’ last-minute changes to the sentencing bill as passed include dropping from 14 to eight the categories of violent felony crimes that require 100% of the sentence imposed by a court to be served.

Among them is attempted first-degree murder. According to a chart provided by Sexton’s office earlier this year, the average time served for that crime is currently 5.72 years.

Under the truth-in-sentencing bill, a judge or jury would be restricted to using a sentencing range of between 15 and 25 years for attempted first-degree murder and the seven other crimes.

Once in prison, those inmates’ sentences could not be reduced by credits for good behavior and program participation. However, such credit could continue to be applied to areas such as increased privileges and reduced security classification.

Then there is the other section for inmates convicted in the 20 other felony crimes who are required to serve at least 85% of the sentence imposed. Those include aggravated assault if the offense involves a deadly weapon. Inmates would be allowed to take advantage of credits to obtain the sentence reduction.

Earlier in the Senate, Sen. Raumesh Akbari, D-Memphis, urged GOP colleagues to reject the bill.

“Most of these folks who will be incarcerated will re-enter society,” she said. “And we’ve completely taken away any sort of incentive for them to participate in programs that will make them a better person.”

The legislation would allow inmates to earn privileges, Akbari acknowledged.

“But at the end of the day if you’re not able to work towards something like decreasing your time, it really is proven not to be effective,” she said.

Lundberg said he wants the bill to make people think hard before committing a violent crime.

“I hope more than anything we send a message and it becomes a deterrent before anyone goes into our prison system, No. 1. No. 2, for those who do, I think it provides transparency so that a sentence, whether it’s in Sullivan County or Shelby County or Hamilton County or Davidson County, is the same across the board.

“That provides knowledge not only for the perpetrator or the criminal but for the victims,” Lundberg continued. “Because right now when we say someone has been sentenced to serve 10 years, that 10 years could literally be a year and a half, or it could be eight years or any variation of that. Now there’s assurance and I think that message again is, wow, Tennessee is really tough on crime.”

The amended bill is estimated to cost the state $25.42 million annually when fully implemented, according to a legislative fiscal note. Critics, including Jeff Yarbro, say that understates costs by up to two-thirds.

(c)2022 the Chattanooga Times/Free Press (Chattanooga, Tenn.)