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CPAC organizer pans Tennessee’s ‘truth-in-sentencing’ bill

Lawmakers attend Gov. Bill Lee’s State of the State address in Nashville on Jan. 31, 2022. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

The American Conservative Union is speaking out against legislation pending in the Tennessee General Assembly to make people convicted of violent crimes serve 100% of their sentences without the possibility of parole. The measure has been championed by House Speaker Cameron Sexton (R-Crossville) and his Senate counterpart, Randy McNally (R-Oak Ridge), but appears to fly in the face of Republican Gov. Bill Lee’s criminal justice reform efforts.

Lawmakers are expected to include the sentencing measure in the annual state spending plan they intend to pass later this week.

Legislative analysts have projected a $28 million annual cost increase for making the change, while the state Department of Correction puts the number at $90 million.

“It would be one thing to spend massive sums on prisons if the proposal was based on evidence that requiring criminals to serve 100% of their sentences would increase public safety,” according to the letter. “However, there is no such data.”

The ACU “strongly opposes” the bill and urges lawmakers to reject it. Voting in favor will adversely affect annual lawmaker rankings, the group said.

Here’s the letter sent to McNally and Senate Finance Chair Bo Watson (R-Chattanooga):

Dear Lt. Governor McNally and Chairman Watson:

The American Conservative Union (“ACU”) is the nation’s oldest grassroots advocacy organization. Founded in 1964 by William F. Buckley, we have a 50-plus-year track record of advancing policies that reduce the size and scope of government, advance liberty, and reduce burdens on families.

Historically, Tennessee has been a beacon of conservative principles and leadership. With an overall rating of 74% all-time from our sister organization, the American Conservative Union Foundation, Tennessee stands head and shoulders above other state legislatures in its conservative voting record. But we find ourselves very concerned about a particular proposal making its way through the legislature: House Bill 2656/Senate Bill 2248.

Commonly referred to as “Truth in Sentencing,” the proposal under consideration would require individuals convicted of certain crimes to serve 100 percent of their sentence before becoming eligible for release. While this sounds tough on crime and reasonable on its face, there are many factors that go into the effectiveness and long-term consequences of such policy changes. More than 90% of those in Tennessee’s prisons will pay their debts to society and return to their communities. Our goal is to have them return as better versions of themselves by completing their education, addressing addiction, and participating in mental health counseling and other proven anti-recidivism programs. Offering prisoners time off for good behavior is a key incentive that makes this possible, and in turn makes Tennessee safer.

Of course, no one is arguing that people should be given a pass for wrongdoing. Those who break the law must be held accountable for their actions. The counter is that if we fail to provide incentives, prisons will remain mere warehouses of humanity. Those returning will be no better than when they went in. And this means that Tennessee communities will forgo public safety benefits that would otherwise be available.

Adding to the concerns around the public safety impact of this bill is the tremendous uncertainty around its true fiscal impact. While the fiscal note indicates this bill will create $27.7 million in increased expenditures, TDOC data reflects costs much closer to $90 million. One report reflects that increasing aggravated burglary offenses alone to 100 percent will cost taxpayers $38.7 million per year, including $8.7 million of that absorbed locally.

As eye-opening as these numbers are (especially for a state that prides itself on fiscal conservativism), this legislation could cost taxpayers far more. According to TDOC testimony before the Senate Judiciary, cost projections around this bill do not account for the possibility that new prison facilities might be necessary to accommodate the prison population growth that would result from the passage of this bill. With Tennessee’s prisons are already operating at 92% capacity, there would become a much higher likelihood TDOC will either have to build new prisons or contract for more capacity. Either option is likely to run into the tens or hundreds of millions of dollars in new government spending.

It would be one thing to spend massive sums on prisons if the proposal was based on evidence that requiring criminals to serve 100% of their sentences would increase public safety. However, there is no such data. But there is analysis from the United States Sentencing Commission that indicates that early releases of drug offenders had no adverse impact on crime. In fact, there was a marginal reduction in recidivism for those who were granted early release.

Finally, we would note that eliminating time off for good behavior in the Truth in Sentencing package under consideration would endanger the safety of Tennessee’s corrections officers. Stated simply, those who have nothing to lose have no reason to follow the rules. And this has proven true in other states.

After Arizona enacted its own version of Truth In Sentencing, rules infractions in facilities increased by 50 percent, education program enrollment dropped by20 percent, and the three-year reincarceration rates rose by over 7 percentage points(a nearly 40 percent increase). Unfortunately, this trio of negative results also cost the Arizona taxpayers millions of dollars, while furthering the damage to already broken communities and families.

Accordingly, we view House Bill 2656 and Senate Bill 2248 as proposals that cost too much, do too little to make Tennessee communities safer, and endanger correctional staff along the way.

Accordingly, ACU strongly opposes this legislation and urges you to reject it. We have also recommended to our colleagues at the American Conservative Union Foundation’s Center for Legislative Accountability (Ratings) that they rate a vote to approve HB 2656/SB2248 negatively in our 2022 ratings.

Should you have any questions regarding this matter, please feel free to contact me […].

Respectfully,

Patrick Plein

American Conservative Union

Tennessee ranks fifth from bottom in COVID-19 vaccination rate

Graffiti scrawled on the side of a shuttered Nashville gas station denounces COVID-19 vaccinations on April 11, 2021. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Tennessee ranks fifth-worst among the states for the percentage of residents who have received at least one dose of COVID-19 vaccines. The 30.3% rate was above only Louisiana, Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi, according to CDC data compiled by The Washington Post.

Tennessee slipped another spot among states delivering both doses of the vaccine, with its rate of 18.2% besting only Alabama, Utah, and Georgia.

Here are the counties with the highest percentage of fully vaccinated residents:

  • Loudon (26%)
  • Meigs (23%)
  • Pickett (23%)
  • Unicoi (23%)
  • Washington (23%)
  • Cumberland (22%)
  • Madison (22%)
  • Sullivan (22%)

Those with the lowest rates are:

  • Moore (8%)
  • Sequatchie (10%)
  • Grundy (10%)
  • Lauderdale (11%)
  • Cannon (11%)

Among the state’s largest counties, Shelby’s rate was 17%, Davidson and Knox were at 19%, and Hamilton reached 21%.

The rollout will likely be further complicated by a recommendation by federal authorities to pause the adminstration of the single-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine.