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May 3, 2022

"Why Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee should veto mass-incarceration crime bill"

The title of this post is the headline of this commentary authored by David Louis Raybin. I recommend the full piece, and here are excerpts:

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.  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.

In 1979, crime was getting out of hand. Gov. Lamar Alexander’s legal counsel and I were asked to draft a crime bill....  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.

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....  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.

May 3, 2022 at 11:04 AM | Permalink


"Crime rates do not drive a state’s prison population — policy choices do."

The author is easily experienced enough to know this is false. Crime rates and policy choices both drive a state's prison population. Dealing with one (like policy) without dealing with the other won't work.

Posted by: Bill Otis | May 3, 2022 12:27:29 PM

Hi Bill - I think the author is simply pointing out that laws that require service of 85% or more of a sentence before possible release may sound appealing to voters that may be weary of crime but will have possible consequences that will strain state budgets and prison systems - the author mentions the riots, hostage taking, and overcrowding in prisons that are a result of well intended laws but create nothing but negative outcomes in prisons. “Honesty in sentencing” may be a worthwhile goal but we must control our prison population at manageable levels and allow inmates to earn their way out of prison by good behavior and rehabilitation programs. Thank you for reading - Brett Miler

Posted by: Brett Miler | May 3, 2022 12:56:06 PM

Brett Miller --

The author (and you) are correct in saying that policy choices significantly influence the prison population, but the author is incorrect in saying that crime rates don't.

Posted by: Bill Otis | May 3, 2022 11:03:13 PM

Hi Bill - Crime rates may influence the prison population by leading the public to elect leaders who will enact tough on crime measures but policy choices still have the greater role in prison population as leaders can choose measures that either increase the prison population (create new crimes, lengthen sentences, and restrict early release/parole) or decrease the prison population (lower sentences, expand parole). Rising crime rates may lead certain politicians to get elected but those same politicians (and the people who elect them) still hold the ultimate responsibility in deciding whether to increase or decrease prison population - thus the author is ultimately correct in holding that policy choices ultimately determine the prison population. Brett Miler

Posted by: Brett Miler | May 4, 2022 11:24:43 AM

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