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Governor declines to sign tough new sentencing rules that will keep some convicts behind bars longer

The legislation will become law even without Governor Lee's signature and will take effect on July 1.

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee legislation that will keep violent criminals behind bars for their entire sentences — without opportunity for early parole — will become law on July 1 without Governor Bill Lee's signature. 

Lee declined to sign or veto the legislation that he said will lead to more victims, higher recidivism and prison overcrowding. 

House Speaker Cameron Sexton and Lieutenant Governor Randy McNally both supported the legislation and released statements Friday celebrating its passage.

"You can protect criminals or you can protect victims. I stand with victims," Sexton said. 

For Joan Berry, the legislation is personal. Since her daughter, Johnia, was killed in her Knoxville apartment in 2004, she's advocated for tougher sentencing laws. 

"I think God has answered my prayer," she said. "It’s justice. It’s justice and it’s time that we had true justice."

The legislation mandates people convicted of nine violent crimes — from carjacking to murder — serve 100% of their sentences. For a dozen other crimes, it mandates convicts serve 85% of their sentences. 

"When people have no incentive to do any better, they don’t," said Josh Smith, a criminal justice reform advocate who opposed the legislation. "I believe people should do their time, but we have to give them incentive to earn their way out."

Smith spent five years in prison for his role in drug trafficking and was later pardoned by President Trump. Since his release, he's become a successful businessperson and a criminal justice reform advocate. 

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"This is the older way of thinking that’s got us into a lot of situations that we’re in currently," he said of the new legislation, dubbed "Truth in Sentencing."

He said in-prison programming is critical to teach inmates how to become productive members of society upon release. Without the incentive for early parole, Smith suggested fewer people will participate in the programs. 

"I believe people need to go and pay a debt to society when you violate it, but we have to make sure that if they’re going to see the light of day and be neighbors to my children or someone else’s children, that they have seen a different way of doing things, not just been locked away," Smith said. 

The legislation also comes at an expense to taxpayers — estimated at upwards of at least $25 million dollars. 

"It shouldn’t be about the financial note, it should be about the safety of Tennessee and doing what’s right for Tennessee," victims' rights advocate Berry said. 

But what's right for Tennessee depends on who you ask. Governor Lee said, "data does not support the basic premise of the legislation." Similar legislation has been enacted before and resulted in significant operational and financial strain. 

"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," Lieutenant Governor McNally said in a statement. "The costs associated with the legislation are well worth the peace of mind offered to victims and the overall boost to public safety." 

"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," said Speaker Sexton.

According to the legislature website,  the "100%" offenses are:

  • Attempted first-degree murder;
  • Second-degree murder;
  • Criminally negligent homicide;
  • Vehicular homicide resulting from the driver's intoxication
  • Aggravated vehicular homicide;
  • Especially aggravated kidnapping;
  • Especially aggravated robbery;
  • Carjacking; and
  • Especially aggravated burglary.

The "85%" offenses are:

  • Aggravated assault involving the use of a deadly weapon; aggravated assault involving strangulation or attempted strangulation; aggravated assault that results in serious bodily injury; aggravated assault against a first responder or nurse if the offense involved the use of a deadly weapon; and aggravated assault against a first responder or nurse involving strangulation or attempted strangulation;
  • Voluntary manslaughter;
  • Vehicular homicide in circumstances other than the driver's intoxication;
  • Reckless homicide;
  • Aggravated kidnapping;
  • Involuntary labor servitude;
  • Trafficking persons for forced labor or services;
  • Aggravated robbery;
  • Aggravated burglary;
  • Aggravated arson;
  • Possessing or using a firearm or antique firearm during commission of or attempt to commit a dangerous felony; and
  • The manufacture, delivery, or sale of a controlled substance where the instant offense is classified as a Class A, B, or C felony and the person has two or more prior convictions for the manufacture, delivery, or sale of a controlled substance classified as a Class A, B, or C felony prior to or at the time of committing the instant offense.