Crime rates do not drive a state’s prison population — policy choices do.
Every year the General Assembly passes a few bills which lengthen sentences for a few crimes. This year the flood gates opened. Two dozen offenses have been amended to require service of 85% or even 100% of the total time before release.
There are no “behavior” credits which reduce these sentences further. Some offenses now prohibit parole.
Our current sentencing scheme includes lengthy sentences that can be a mix of prison and supervised parole release on a case-by-case basis. For example, a first offender might get a sentence of six years, but he or she would be eligible for parole supervision after service of about 30% of that time. Now, he or she will serve the full 6 years.
There are better ways to accomplish certainly in sentencing such as by having mandatory minimums of real time behind bars but coupled with rehabilitative programs.
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Tennessee is repeating history
The sentence lengths under current law were never designed for 100% or even 85% sentences. But now the real time in prison is doubled or even tripled with no hope and release perhaps decades later with little or no supervision.
How could this have happened? The truth is we have been here before.
In 1979, crime was getting out of hand. Gov. Lamar Alexander’s legal counsel and I were asked to draft a crime bill. I was asked to participate because I drafted legislation in the past including Tennessee’s death penalty law.
We came up with what was known as the Class X Felony Law of 1979. Much like the current legislation, this law eliminated early parole and sentencing credits.
While it seemed like a good idea at the time, in a few years the prisons were filled and eventually overflowing. There were riots in four prisons. Correctional officers and nurses were held hostage. A fire started at one prison caused millions in damage.. A federal court took over our prisons.
The General Assembly was called into an emergency special session. As a result, parole and credits were restored as a reward for good behavior and to allow for supervised release of compliant inmates.
We should learn the lessons of the not-too-distant past and not repeat the same mistakes.
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'Truth-in-sentencing is a false narrative'
The cost to taxpayers of this current legislation is astronomical: $95 million. Thousands of people are convicted each year of the offenses that will now require substantially increased prison sentences.
Our prisons are already bursting at the seams with inmates backing up in the jails. We would need to build new prisons each year to house the increase in inmates.
This one size fits all approach is not warranted. Some home burglaries result in absolute terror for the victims but if some kid breaks in and steals a TV, we agree that this should be treated differently. And that is why we have some discretion here with the parole board and judge.
Truth-in-sentencing is a false narrative. "Good conduct” credits, by whatever name, have been in place for most of our state's history. Whenever the legislature abolishes these credits, they are soon restored as a method to both control the prisoners as well as the capacity of the prisons.
Indeed, the Class X law of 1979 had as a cornerstone the elimination of sentencing credits. In a mere six years the credits were restored.
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Lawmakers were well-intentioned but ill-advised
Every significant change in the sentencing law in Tennessee’s history has come from the governor’s leadership. This includes the first sentencing law of 1829, the 1989 sentencing reform law and everything in between.
This most recent truth-in-sentencing proposal has emanated not from the governor but from the pen of well-intentioned legislators whose “crime in the streets” rhetoric resonates in an election year
We should not be ruled by passion but by intelligent policy choices. Something as important as our criminal justice system needs input from all the stakeholders who bring many views to the table. We do not build roads or schools in this fashion but apparently now permit our prison system to grow with little oversight.
As part of the budget the legislature also approved funding for a covered football stadium. We may need it to house all the extra prisoners this crime bill will generate.
With his veto pen, Governor Lee has an opportunity to give the General Assembly a chance to reconsider ill-advised, mass incarceration legislation. This is not the kind of “criminal justice reform” the governor campaigned for and that voters resoundingly elected him to implement.
As someone who has helped draft numerous sentencing laws over the years, including a similar bill that had disastrous effects, I request Governor Lee to use his constitutional powers to let us catch our breath and work together for a long-term solution which will make us all safer.
David Louis Raybin is a Nashville attorney.
This article originally appeared on Nashville Tennessean: Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee should veto mass-incarceration crime bill