Commentary by DANIEL HOROWITZ | April 26, 2022
In recent years, sentencing for violent criminals has been like common core math. You start out with a sum of 20 years, for example, but somehow even the worst career offenders wind up turning 20 years into 8 years’ time served. Tennessee has become the first state to finally implement truth in sentencing to make sure that a sentence is actually served.
Last week, after a decade of red states promoting the Koch/Soros jailbreak agenda, the Tennessee legislature put victims first and passed true criminal justice reform. HB2656 / SB2248, as amended, requires people convicted of one of nine criminal offense categories to serve 100% of their sentences – no exceptions. This means no good time credits or parole are available for those found guilty of homicide, vehicular homicide, attempted first-degree murder, robbery, aggravated kidnapping, aggravated burglary, or carjacking.
Additionally, those found guilty of 20 slightly lower-level but still significant crimes, such as aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, aggravated robbery, burglary, and arson, would still be eligible for good time credits, but only after serving 85% of the sentence.
This bill has reversed the decade-long tide of weak-on-crime legislation percolating through red-state legislatures. For years, we’ve been told that there is somehow an over-incarceration problem with people serving draconian sentences for nothingburger crimes. The reality is that even the most violent career criminals often serve a few months here and there and constantly get out to reoffend. With the growing crime wave in cities like Nashville and Memphis, the role of the de-incarceration agenda is hard to deny.
To begin with, most of the sentencing these days is very lenient. For example, in 2019, out of 17,355 felony convictions in Minnesota, only 3,612 were fully sentenced in accordance with the sentencing guidelines. Once you add all the parole and good time credit programs to that, even the worst career criminals are only serving a fraction of the sentence. This doesn’t even account for all of the ways they plead down throughout their criminal career, thereby incurring a sentence well below the threat level of their criminal proclivities. At a minimum, this bill ensures that violent and dangerous criminals will at least serve the entire sentence they are given. This bill should serve as a model in every other state, as the crime wave continues to grow.
The American Conservative Union, which hosts the annual CPAC gathering for alleged conservatives, vigorously opposed this bill because it apparently still believes there are too many, rather than too few, criminals behind bars. However, no sane person can believe we need to let more people out of prison.
Those who think we don’t have an under-incarceration problem should consider the following statistics from the FBI in 2019. Just 61.4% of the 14,325 homicides, 32.9% of the 124,817 rapes, 30.5% of the 239,643 armed robberies, and 52.3% of the 726,778 aggravated assaults were “cleared” cases. That means that in 5,529 murder cases, 83,752 rape cases, 166,552 armed robbery cases, and 346,673 aggravated assault cases, there was no arrest. Hence, just in the four violent categories alone, there were over 758,000 violent crime cases that went without a resolution just in one year.
What about duration of incarceration? According to BJS, among the prisoners released from state prison in 2018 – before some of the recent “reform” – they only served, on average, 44% of their sentences. Even for murder, it was only 58% of their sentences. The median length of time served for murder was less than 10 years in 30% of the cases and was more than 20 years in only 42%. The median time served for rape was less than 10 years in 64% of prisoners. In total, 71% of those serving time for a violent crime category served less than five years, and nearly half served less than two years.
In reality, the bromide of “criminal justice reform” for “low-level, nonviolent offenders” was always a ruse. Now groups like the ACU openly admit they oppose even truth in sentencing, much less enhanced sentencing, for the most violent and career criminals.
The truth in sentencing bill passed the Senate 20-6 and the House 86-9 with bipartisan support and now heads to Governor Bill Lee’s desk. The bill was sponsored by House Speaker Cameron Sexton, who made a rare speech from the well of the House chamber to present his bill. This legislation piggybacks on last year’s truth in sentencing law, which closed the early release loopholes for crimes traditionally committed against women and children, such as rape and child abuse.
Reminiscent of some of the debates over COVID, proponents of weak sentencing are demanding to see “studies” showing more jail time leads to less crime. Speaker Sexton believes no such study is needed when common sense dictates fewer criminals on the street equals less crime. “This solution creates the toughest penalties in America for violent criminals; it also establishes a firm line for criminals not to cross,” said the speaker in a statement to TheBlaze. “If they do, punishment will be swift and severe under our new law. I do not need a fancy study to tell me more bad guys in jail with longer sentences reduces crime.”
It is shocking how red-state governors and legislatures have failed to pursue these ideas until now. Even blue-state governors are now vulnerable to defeat because of the growing crime wave. A recent Gallup poll showed that 53% of Americans worry a “great deal” about crime and it ranks as the third most important issue on the minds of voters. A Pew Research poll showed that crime is the number-one issue among black voters.
With surging crime in cities like Memphis and Nashville, Tennessee had the sixth highest murder rate in 2020. In both 2020 and 2021, Memphis set new homicide records and now boasts the ninth highest homicide rate in the country and is ranked the most violent metro area in the country. The homicide rate in Tennessee has gone from a low of 5.2 per 100,000 in 2013 to 9.6 in 2020. Motor vehicle thefts have spiked from 183 per 100,000 to over 300. Even smaller cities like Chattanooga have become increasingly dangerous.
Kudos to the Tennessee legislature for recognizing that weak-on-crime policies plague red states just as much as blue states and need to be rectified. Along with the passage of robust medical freedom bills and a new ivermectin over-the-counter bill, the Tennessee legislature is on its way to forging an agenda of freedom and public safety that should be emulated in every red state. If every GOP supermajority state would use its power to its fullest, we wouldn’t have to wait for ineffective GOP majorities in the irremediably broken federal system to make a difference.