Wednesday, April 27, 2022

Tennessee Legislature passes bill requiring some defendants to serve 100% of sentence

 By Jon Styf, The Center Square, Apr 22, 2022 -  — The Tennessee House and Senate approved a truth-in-sentencing bill that would require defendants who are convicted of eight categories of crime to serve 100% of their sentences.

Those convicted of attempted first-degree murder, second-degree murder, vehicular homicide with driver intoxication, aggravated vehicular homicide, aggravated kidnapping, robbery and burglary and carjacking will all have to serve 100% of their original sentence if the bill becomes law.

The bill then identifies 20 categories of crime that would require at least 85% of the sentence to be served before eligibility for release. 

"You have to set a line that some crimes are not permitted in our state," said House Speaker Cameron Sexton, who used an analogy about disciplining children for violence against their mother while explaining the bill, saying that children would be punished for crossing that line.

"When you cross that line, there is a severe and swift punishment," Sexton said. "For far too long, we have had lines that are made in chalk."

Senate Bill 2248 passed the Senate 20-6 and then the House 86-9 on Thursday. Since one amendment from the House fixed a "drafting error" according to Rep. William Lamberth, R-Portland, the amendment will need to be concurred by the Senate before heading to Gov. Bill Lee's desk.

This week, the American Conservative Union (ACU) came out against the legislation in a letter, saying "It would be one thing to spend massive sums on prisons if the proposal was based on evidence that requiring criminals to serve 100% of their sentences would increase public safety. However, there is no such data."

The bill had a fiscal note that it would eventually cost the state $25.4 million annually in additional incarceration costs. That's down from the original $40.6 million note on the bill, which originally listed 14 categories of offenses that would require 100% of sentences served but that list was later lowered.

The bill is estimated to cost the state $11,600 in its first year, $752,900 in Year 2, then $12 million in Year 3 and $17 million in Year 5 before growing to its final cost in fiscal year 2031-32. If signed into law, it would go into effect on July 1.

"Adding to the concerns around the public safety impact of this bill is the tremendous uncertainty around its true fiscal impact," the ACU letter said. "While the fiscal note indicates this bill will create $27.7 million in increased expenditures, TDOC (Tennessee Department of Corrections) data reflects costs much closer to $90 million.

"One report reflects that increasing aggravated burglary offenses alone to 100 percent will cost taxpayers $38.7 million per year, including $8.7 million of that absorbed locally."

Aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, reckless assault with a deadly weapon or involving strangulation or attempted strangulation or that results in serious bodily injury or death all would require 85% of a sentence to be served before credits apply.

That category also includes aggravated assault against a first responder or nurse for all of the above categories.

Voluntary manslaughter, reckless homicide, aggravated kidnapping, involuntary labor servitude, trafficking persons for forced labor or services and aggravated robbery, burglary and arson would require 85% to be served. The list also includes the manufacture, delivery or sale of a controlled substance after two or more convictions, criminally negligent homicide and vehicular homicide causing the risk of death or serious bodily injury from drag racing or within a posted construction zone where a worker is killed.

Rod's Comment: I have mixed thoughts about this bill. On the one hand, it is appalling when one reads of someone who commits a horrible crime only serving a small portion of their sentence.  However, the argument offered by ACU above I find compelling. Also, I think a prisoner who takes advantage of the rehabilitative services such as counseling, getting an education, and learning a skill while in prison and who has a strong support system on the outside and has exemplified good behavior should not have to serve the same amount of time as someone who has shown none of those positive developments and who has a weak support system. Maybe it is overused, but I think there is role for early release and parole. 

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