Tennessee’s recently passed truth in sentencing law centers around politics, not prevention
Headlines of violent crime strike fear in the hearts of Tennesseans. Our leaders have a duty to combat the scourge of violence with strong leadership aimed at crime prevention, not political posturing. It is through prevention that success is measured — by victims never created, prison beds vacant for want of occupants, and billions of dollars not spent on revolving prison doors.
Investment in law enforcement is critical to prevention. Attempts to defund law enforcement amount to public safety being sacrificed on the altar of political agendas and must be rebuffed.
gov. Bill Lee understood this assignment. While law enforcement was being vilified in parts of the country, Governor Lee used his State of the State address to invite them to Tennessee. Moreover, he called for the legislature to allocate “$150 million directly into law enforcement agencies to create safer neighborhoods through the violent crime intervention grant fund.”
Unfortunately, the Tennessee legislature was less inclined toward the prevention model.
In fact, near the close of session, the Tennessee House Ways and Means Subcommittee moved to completely defund Governor Lee’s law enforcement funding for violent crime intervention. Luckily, reason prevailed and $100 million of the funding was restored.
Why the accommodation model doesn’t work
The legislature has chosen instead to invest resources in an accommodation model that measures success by the optics and feelings of toughness achieved through increased building and spending to warehouse violent crime without accounting for prevention.
To this end, the legislature passed a “truth in sentencing” bill. Governor Lee allowed the bill to become law without his signature.
Offenders convicted of certain violent offenses will serve 100% of their sentence with no chance of earned credit toward parole. They’ll be released directly into the community without parole supervision. Some enumerated offenses are afforded earned credit toward release at 85%.
Absent from this approach is an accounting for the unavoidable reality that 95% of the inmates impacted will return. Choosing to warehouse violent crime with no eye toward preventing future victimization may poll well but is not without its human and fiscal toll.
First, simply accommodating crime fails to reduce crime, and in fact, could have the opposite impact. Proponents present no data to suggest the crimes identified in their legislation are unresponsive to correctional rehabilitation programming, and that incentivized rehabilitation will not reduce the safety risk of these particular offenders pose upon release.
We concede there are honest concerns about the effectiveness of earned credits for deviant, violent behavior. Scrutinizing the correctional effectiveness of a program against the risk of releasing a dangerous criminal into the community early is responsible.
However, this new law is not exclusive to violent crime. It includes aggravated burglary, which can include stealing a $100 leaf blower out of a garage, and third offense drug distribution. Questions may exist around whether skills training reduces the safety risk of an offender convicted of murder, kidnapping, or rape. Far less so for theft and drug offenses.
Credible concerns exist that the legislation could undermine safety. Tony Parker, the former Commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Corrections, warned of public safety implications to limiting earned credit incentives particularly for nonviolent offenses. The law risks undermining corrective efforts to ensure offenders return better than they arrived.