Sep 12, 2022 - News

Tennessee Republicans respond to Memphis violence

Illustration of the Tennessee State Capitol building with lines radiating from it.
Illustration: Allie Carl/Axios

Top Tennessee Republicans are amplifying calls for more tough-on-crime policies following high-profile violence in Memphis.

Why it matters: The issue could dominate the upcoming legislative session and would likely expand on this year's legislation extending prison terms for some crimes.

Driving the news: The slaying of a kindergarten teacher followed by a deadly shooting spree put a national spotlight on crime in Memphis.

  • Local and state officials have said the deaths could have been prevented if the suspects in both cases had served longer prison sentences for previous crimes.

What's happening: Lt. Gov. Randy McNally and House Speaker Cameron Sexton announced last week the formation of a committee to study the "adequacy of the supervision, investigation and release" of criminals in Tennessee.

What they're saying: McNally tells Axios the "rising tide of crime in our cities, illustrated by the most recent heinous events in Memphis, demonstrates the desperate need for a tough-on-crime approach."

  • "Too many violent criminals are getting out of prison far too early and committing far too many violent additional offenses. We cannot continue to sacrifice the safety of our streets on the altar of rehabilitation."

Sexton tells Axios the so-called truth-in-sentencing bill passed earlier this year was the "first step of many to fix a broken system." Sexton says he would be open to pursuing legislation that would automatically move juveniles accused of some violent crimes into the adult court system.

  • He adds that more programming is needed to help divert juveniles accused of nonviolent offenses.
  • "We want to help nonviolent offenders not become violent. But once you cross that threshold, all bets are off."

Between the lines: Republican Gov. Bill Lee, a longtime supporter of criminal justice reform, spoke against "truth in sentencing" efforts earlier this year, saying that data showed it wouldn't work. (Although, he still allowed it to become law without his signature.)

  • That position put him at odds with other prominent conservatives, including Fox News host Tucker Carlson, who blasted Lee last week.
  • Carlson mischaracterized Lee's reform efforts, which have included diverting nonviolent offenders away from prison and expanding supervision programming for people after they serve their sentences.

The latest: On Friday, Lee said "soft-on-crime plea deals" had contributed to the violence in Memphis.

  • The governor said he supported "stiffening penalties on violent offenders."
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