Chief deputy: Bill would further crowd Tennessee jails, end work incentives for inmates

Becky Campbell • Mar 13, 2018 at 10:57 PM

A bill up for consideration by the House Criminal Justice Committee Wednesday would impact how much time certain defendants can reduce their parole eligibility by earning work credits, but some officials say it would also cost the state $37 million a year and continue to overburden prison and local jail populations.

Washington County Chief Deputy Leighta Laitinen said on Tuesday there were 690 inmates in the detention center. That number includes 154 state inmates serving a sentence and 230 pre-trial inmates charged with felonies. Last weekend, the jail had 705 inmates after people serving weekend sentences were booked in.

Per incentives outlined in TCA 41-2-144, inmates can earn credit toward reducing their sentence if they are able to obtain a job in the jail. Laitinen said there are not enough jobs for every inmate and not every inmate would qualify for a job.

The inmates who do work perform cleaning duties inside the jail, work in the kitchen, laundry and are assigned to work crews that work outside the jail doing right-of-way clearing along county roads or other county property and littler pick-up. Without the incentive to work toward reducing their sentence, many inmates would be less likely to seek work inside the jail, and officials are not allowed to force them to work because of state prohibitions on chain gangs.

“Losing the ability to get them out sooner will put us in a crisis mode,” in regard to jail population, Laitinen said. “We haven’t been able to get any state beds in months. The state facilities are full, too.”

Laitinen said the certified capacity for the detention center is 566 in the main jail and 54 in the workhouse, which is where inmates assigned to outside work crews are housed. Being able to put inmates to work earning credit against their sentence helps keep that number from being higher, she said.

A bill, HB 1514, introduced by Rep. Bud Hulsey, R-Kingsport, passed the Criminal Justice subcommittee last week. The companion Senate bill, SB 1692, introduced by Jon Lundberg, R-Bristol, was listed as being in the General Subcommittee of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

The bill summary on the Tennessee General Assembly website description of the proposed law states: “As introduced, prevents an inmate convicted of a felony from using sentence reduction credits until the minimum release eligibility date applicable to the inmate is reached.”

In last week’s subcommittee hearing, Hulsey verbally amended the bill to only include people convicted of Class A, B or C violent felonies. He said the bill’s purpose is to have more truth in sentencing.

“So the bill started out saying you can earn all the credits you want to, you just can’t cash in on it until you’ve served the minimum of the statue,” Hulsey told the subcommittee. “Well, that had a fiscal note of $112 million, so I changed it and this amendment says for A, B, and C felonies that are under Title 39, which are violent crimes against persons, you can’t exercise your parole hearing and be released on good behavior until you have served the minimum of what the statue demands.”

Hulsey said the fiscal analysis returned on the amendment “came back with a $37 million fiscal note, which tells you how many folks with A, B and C felonies we’re turning loose before the statute minimum has ever been served.”

State sentencing guidelines are broken down by class of offense. A Class A felony carries a sentencing range of 15 to 60 years. Within that range, defendants are classified by ranges:

Mitigated with no priors could be sentenced to 13.5 years at 20 percent, making them eligible for parole after 2.7 years.

Standard range one offenders carries 15 to 25 years at 30 percent, making them eligible for parole after 4.5 to 7.5 years.

Multiple range two offenders can get 25 to 40 years at 35 percent, making them eligible for parole after 8.8 to 14 years.

Persistent range three offenders would face 40-60 years at 45 percent, making them eligible for parole after 18 to 27 years.

Career offenders would face 60 years at 60 percent, making them eligible for parole after 37 years.

Class B and Class C felony sentencing is calculated the same way. 

Examples of the crimes Hulsey’s bill would be applied to include:

• Class A felony: first-degree murder, attempted first-degree murder, second-degree murder, aggravated vehicular homicide, especially aggravated kidnapping, especially aggravated robbery, aggravated rape, rape of a child and aggravated rape of a child;

• Class B felony: solicitation to commit first-degree murder, vehicular homicide by intoxication, aggravated kidnapping, aggravated robbery, rape, aggravated sexual battery, carjacking and aggravated child abuse, neglect or endangerment; and

• Class C felony: aggravated assault, reckless endangerment, voluntary manslaughter, vehicular homicide by drag racing, kidnapping, robbery and statutory rape by authority figure.

But now, the eligibility date for parole consideration can be reduced further by inmates having good behavior or jobs at the facility where they serve their sentence. Inmates can earn up to two days for every one day served. Sentences for several sex crimes must be served at 100 percent.

With the fiscal note of $37 million a year, and overcrowded prisons and county jails, the bill could have problems getting passed.

Subcommittee member Rep. William Lamberth, R-Cottontown, said it’s time to “get real” about sentencing reform.

“I understand the cost of this, but until we get real about our sentences, this isn’t fair to victims, to defendants, to judges, DAs, attorneys. There’s a lot of subject matter experts that come to this committee every week and there’s not a single soul in this room that can tell somebody that when they either plead guilty or are found guilty and sentenced when they will be released from prison.”

Rep. Sherry Jones, D-Nashville, spoke out against the bill and said rehabilitating inmates to be able to reenter society should be a goal of incarceration.

“I think we have to decide in this society what we’re doing with our corrections departments,” Jones said. “Are we there to punish people and then put them out on the street or are we there to try to rehabilitate people and put them out on the street as good taxpayers? Now, if somebody shot and killed somebody in my family, I would be devastated and I may want them to be in prison for the rest of their lives and then some.

“On the other hand, what kind of society are we that we don’t want to take bad people and try to make them as good as they can be so they can be productive citizens and not do these sort of things? We hear all the time that children grow up in homes and learn these sort of behaviors.”

Laitinen said the bill sounds tough on crime, but it’s not realistic for budgets.

“From a tough on crime perspective, I’m not against this bill,” Laitinen said. “But from a reality perspective, it’s not feasible for local jails. I can’t speak for state prisons, but we can’t get,” state inmates moved to prisons.”

The full House Criminal Justice Committee will consider the bill at a noon hearing in Nashville Wednesday.

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