Top Tennessee Republicans at odds over ‘truth in sentencing’ bill

Published: May. 6, 2022 at 11:18 PM EDT
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - Tennessee’s top Republicans are at odds over the state’s new ‘truth in sentencing’ legislation, which requires mandatory sentences with no chance of parole for certain crimes.

Governor Bill Lee declined to sign the bill into law, saying it will create a costly burden for taxpayers and offer no reduction in crime.

Because the governor did not veto ‘truth in sentencing,’ it will automatically become law on July 1.

Those who advocate for a better criminal justice system in Memphis and Shelby County told Action News 5 the ‘truth in sentencing’ law is not how we get there.

Josh Spickler, executive director of Just City, a non-profit that fights for criminal justice reform, agreed with Governor Lee. Tennessee’s ‘truth in sentencing’ law, he said, will hurt more people than it will help.

Under the new law, here are the crimes that require 100-percent of the sentence be served:

  • Attempted first degree murder
  • Second degree murder
  • Vehicular homicide with driver intoxication
  • Aggravated vehicular homicide
  • Aggravated kidnapping
  • Robbery
  • Burglary

Local leaders including Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland, Shelby County District Attorney General Amy Weirich and Memphis Police Chief CJ Davis pushed for tougher sentencing laws.

But Governor Lee, in a statement to the bill’s republican sponsors, House Speaker Cameron Sexton and Lt. Governor Randy McNally wrote:

“Data does not support the basic premise of the legislation. Similar legislation has been enacted before and resulted in significant operational and financial strain, with no reduction in crime. Widespread evidence suggests that this policy will result in more victims, higher recidivism, increased crime and prison overcrowding, all with an increased cost to taxpayers. For these reasons, I have chosen not to sign the bill.”

Speaker Sexton replied to the governor:

“You can protect criminals or you can protect victims. I stand with victims, as do members of law enforcement, our district attorneys and criminal judges across Tennessee. In 2020, the U.S. Sentencing Commission published a study stating stronger sentencing has a statistically significant deterrent effect by reducing crime and lowering recidivism. That’s why Tennessee’s law enforcement community stood behind us and supported this legislation.

Sometimes we need to use common-sense approaches; more violent criminals in jail for longer periods means less crime and fewer victims. Softer sentences mean more crime and more victims.”

And Lt. Governor McNally told Governor Lee:

“Truth in Sentencing is vital legislation that not only offers justice and transparency to victims but also acts as s critical deterrent against violent offenders. The costs associated with the legislation are well worth the peace of mind offered to victims and the overall boost to public safety.”

Just City’s Spickler couldn’t disagree more. He said longer prison sentences without more rehabilitation programs and better healthcare and mental health resources are doomed to fail.

“We spit out from our prison system broken men and women,” said Spickler, “who have very little use to the community that they left long ago. That is a recipe for disaster, and it’s a recipe for just more broken human beings.”

Again, Tennessee’s new ‘truth In sentencing’ law goes into effect July 1st. It will not impact the sentences of those already behind bars.

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