Lee declines signature on ‘truth in sentencing’ bill

Gov. Bill Lee speaks to reporters in Gainsboro on July 8. 2021. (Image credit: State of Tennessee)

Gov. Bill Lee has declined to sign a “truth in sentencing” bill championed by legislative Republicans to require people convicted of violent crimes to serve all of their sentences behind bars, The Tennessee Journal has learned.

Under the final version of the bill sponsored by House Speaker Cameron Sexton (R-Crossville) and his Senate counterpart, Randy McNally (R-Oak Ridge), 100% of sentences would have to be served for nine categories of crimes, including murder, vehicular homicide, and carjacking. Seventeen other violent offenses — such as aggravated assault, reckless homicide, or possession of a firearm during the commission of a felony — would allow prisoners to qualify for release after serving 85% of their sentences.

“Data does not support the basic premise of the legislation,” Lee wrote to the speakers. “Similar legislation has been enacted before and resulted in significant operational and financial strain, with no reduction in crime. 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. For these reasons, I have chosen not to sign the bill.”

The bill passed the House on a vote of 86-9 and 20-7 in the Senate. It will become law without Lee’s signature.

Here’s a statement from Sexton in response:

You can protect criminals or you can protect victims.  I stand with victims, as do members of law enforcement, our district attorneys, and criminal judges across Tennessee. In 2020, the U.S. Sentencing Commission published a study stating stronger sentencing has a statistically significant deterrent effect by reducing crime and lowering recidivism. That’s why Tennessee’s law enforcement community stood behind us and supported this legislation.

Sometimes we need to use common-sense approaches; more violent criminals in jail for longer periods means less crime and fewer victims. Softer sentences mean more crime and more victims.

Our job is to keep our communities safe, protect our families, and support law enforcement.  If we need to build more prisons, we can. Either we value life or we don’t; this legislation was about the most violent crimes committed in our state.  It’s hard to stand with victims and law enforcement by going easy on criminals.

McNally dials it back a bit:

Truth in Sentencing is vital legislation that not only offers justice and transparency to victims but also acts as a critical deterrent against violent offenders. The costs associated with the legislation are well worth the peace of mind offered to victims and the overall boost to public safety. While I disagree with Governor Lee’s critique of the bill, I appreciate his willingness to work with Speaker Sexton and I to get the bill in a posture to avoid a veto. I am grateful this bill is now the law of the land in Tennessee.”