A quartet of Memphis and Tennessee leaders promised the public Thursday that a new law mandating people convicted of a slew of violent crimes serve 100% of their sentence will make Tennessee, and Memphis, safer.
That promise came during a "ceremonial bill signing," at Memphis City Hall Thursday afternoon. Tennessee House Speaker Cameron Sexton, Lt. Gov Randy McNally, Shelby County District Attorney General Amy Weirich and Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland each said the bill — which goes by the catchphrase truth-in-sentencing — will offer a deterrent for violent criminals.
The actual bill, which passed this spring, becomes law on July 1 without the governor's signature affixed to it. Gov. Bill Lee disagreed with the legislation — part of bipartisan opposition to a policy that is projected to increase prison populations and removes parole as an incentive to rehabilitate inmates.
Sexton, R-Crossville, acknowledged, and dismissed, the potential cost of the policy change on Thursday.
More from Samuel Hardiman: Memphis Police Department is forecasting a revenue drop — from organized crime
"Some people will question the cost of this and some people will question the usefulness of something like this. But when you make comments about that, you're discounting every single victim that has faced acts like this, what's the cost to their family, what's the cost to their loved one, and what is a life worth in our state?" Sexton said.
Families of violent crime victims attended the ceremony. The group included the family of Drew Rainer, a Rhodes College student from Memphis who was killed last fall during an armed robbery. Rainer's father gave testimony during the legislative session in support of the bill.
McNally, R-Oak Ridge, described the bill like it was a medical treatment for violent crime.
"In medicine, we know that the more serious the disease, the more aggressive the treatment. And that's what we're doing here," he said.
Signing gets Weirich screen time during the homestretch
Longer prison sentences have gotten Weirich a lot of attention in an election year.
Weirich has supported stiffer prison sentences for years. Thursday was the third joint appearance with Strickland and Sexton about truth-in-sentencing over the past 12 months. They made a joint appearance last summer after a daylong conference on what was then potential legislation.
This spring, she once again appeared with Sexton and Strickland at a Memphis Police Department precinct to tout the bill as it worked its way through the General Assembly.
Thursday provided another opportunity for Weirich — facing a tough general election contest against Steve Mulroy, the former Shelby County Commissioner and current law professor — to get free screen time and tout a key part of her platform.
By appearing next to Sexton and McNally, two of the highest-ranking GOP leaders in the state, however, she reminded Memphis voters that she's a Republican — something that could be risky in a city that votes heavily Democratic.
Truth-in-sentencing part of Strickland's push against violent crime
Throughout his six-and-a-half years in office, Strickland has been vexed by violent crime that, as he acknowledged Thursday, continues to plague Memphis.
The truth-in-sentencing legislation was a key part of the mayor's legislative agenda and he journeyed to Nashville throughout the legislative session to stump for it.
Strickland's comments Thursday dwelled on the city's investments in parks and recidivism programming as they did on crime and punishment — a rhetorical balance the mayor has tried to strike when talking about truth-in-sentencing over the past six months.
On Thursday, Strickland said, "It is vitally important that ex-felons have the opportunity to become productive members of society, or else as two statistics show they'll commit more crimes. But equally as important, we must have consequences for those committing violent acts in our community."
Strickland's support of the truth-in-sentencing on longer prison sentences stems largely from a feeling that people charged with aggravated assault with a deadly weapon should serve the length of their sentence — something he has talked about for years in media interviews and his weekly newsletter.
The legislation mandates that anyone convicted of aggravated assault spend at least 85% of their sentence in prison — something Strickland had wanted.
When pressed on the bill and whether the 'tough-on-crime' aspect of his approach will work, Strickland has pushed back. He used a curse word during an appearance on one news program and said "baloney" on another.
Ceremonial 'signing' held in Knoxville, too
The bill 'signing' at Memphis City Hall was not unique. Sexton and McNally held another, separate 'signing' in Knoxville last week. The two senior Republican leaders have been on something of a road trip touting the bill.
Samuel Hardiman covers Memphis city government and politics for The Commercial Appeal. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or followed on Twitter at @samhardiman.
This article originally appeared on Memphis Commercial Appeal: Leaders advocate for longer prison sentences for violent crimes