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Truth in sentencing just one step

Johnson City Press • May 7, 2019 at 11:13 AM

After an overreaching attempt in 2018, state Rep. Bud Hulsey finally got his “truth-in-sentencing” bill through the state Legislature in the 11th hour last week.

Hulsey’s worthy goal is to prevent early release for such offenders as James Hamm, who killed the Kingsport lawmaker’s friend, Mike Locke, in a drunken hit-and-run crash in 2014. Hamm used sentencing credits in an attempt at an earlier parole but was denied.

While we continue to have concerns about unintended consequences in recidivism, Hulsey is right that the worst of perpetrators should serve at least the minimum time outlined in court.

A standard offender serves at least 30 percent of a sentence, while a career offender serves at least 60 percent, before an eligible release date. Inmates can receive sentencing credits, however, for good behavior, taking certain classes and by voluntarily performing jobs, such as cleaning the jails, kitchen duties, laundry, trimming and mowing along county roads and litter pick-up.

Many offenders deserve such incentives, offering them motivation toward bettering their lives.

The original bill would have prevented all felony offenders in Tennessee jails and prisons, though, from using sentencing credits until they reached their minimum release dates.

As Senior Reporter Becky Campbell reported at the time, local authorities said the bill would have placed them into crisis mode. Forcing so many inmates to serve longer sentences would further crowd facilities, place undue financial and staffing burdens on local sheriff’s departments and leave counties in the lurch on work details.

That original legislation came with a whopper of a price tag — a $112 million fiscal note, which was enough to derail it. Hulsey revised it to include only those convicted of the most serious felonies — classes A, B and C — but that too had a big cost at $37 million per year.

So the version that passed both houses of the General Assembly last week limited the no-credit provision to the most serious offenses while providing an easier route to parole for those convicted of lesser crimes. Felons in classes D and E would still be allowed to use sentencing credits toward early release, and the revised bill also would give an inmate parole “upon reaching release eligibility date unless good cause is shown as to why inmate should not be released.” As reported by our partners at the Kingsport Times News, Hulsey says the revised bill would actually save the state $7.6 million through those releases.

This version is on the right track. It makes no sense for the state to crowd jails and prisons with lesser offenders who meet the criteria and earn their way to an early parole. To be clear, even some inmates with more serious felonies will have the ability to earn and use credits — they’ll just have to serve the minimum first.

That’s a reasonable expectation for society to impose on violent felons. Not all offenses included in class C involve “violence,” however, so the bill is broader than lawmakers have described. A more specific application to truly violent crimes would have been better.

And in the long run, Tennessee should be offering more motivation for offenders to lead productive lives. While punishment is necessary, incarceration alone is not incentive enough, as evidenced by the high rate at which felons return to custody.

We like Gov. Bill Lee’s promises to reform the correction system to provide more inmates with better work experience and skills that could lead to post-release employment. Lack of employment is one of the chief reasons felons reoffend. More higher education opportunities also should be available.

The Legislature should be as equally concerned with rehabilitating inmates as it is with imposing longer sentences. It’s in the state’s best interests to see them succeed.

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