Jun 7, 2022 - Politics

New law will increase prison sentences

Illustration of a gavel and hourglass combination.

Illustration: Lindsey Bailey/Axios

A new law taking effect July 1 will dramatically extend sentences for some crimes.

  • Legislative leaders pitch it as a tough-on-crime measure, but defense attorneys, reform advocates and even Gov. Bill Lee worry it will strain the justice system and lead to bloated prison budgets.

Why it matters: The law, dubbed "truth in sentencing" by its supporters, will require many offenders to serve 100% of their prison sentences for some violent crimes, including attempted murder, carjacking and especially aggravated burglary.

  • A cluster of other crimes included in the law requires 85% prison time.
  • That differs from the current system, in which those offenders can get credits and pursue parole after serving a shorter portion of their sentences in prison.
  • The measure is expected to lead to larger prison rosters over time, which could increase incarceration costs by tens of millions of dollars.

Driving the news: Tennessee House Speaker Cameron Sexton (R-Crossville) tells Axios he is open to pursuing extended prison sentences for more charges in the future.

  • He also wants to reconsider time off for good behavior for a broader swath of charges.

The intrigue: Lee, who has made criminal justice reform a signature issue, stopped short of vetoing the legislation, allowing it to become law without his signature. He told Sexton and Lt. Gov. Randy McNally (R-Oak Ridge) that he thought it would backfire.

  • "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," Lee wrote in a letter to the lawmakers.

State of play: Defense attorney David Raybin, who helped write past Tennessee sentencing laws, was a leading opponent of the measure. He tells Axios a similar law he worked on decades ago was reversed because it led to overcrowded prisons and violent riots.

  • "We've done this before with disastrous consequences," Raybin says. "For the life of me, I can't understand why we keep repeating this same thing."
  • Raybin says the law would effectively triple some sentences. He predicts more cases going to trial as defendants fight harsher penalties.

Yes, but: Sexton brushes aside criticism and says lawmakers will address needs for more trials or prison beds as they arise.

  • "If they say it's too tough … on criminals, I'll take that as a win."

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