As a former Sumner County Assistant District Attorney, I prosecuted more cases than I care to count in which victims — often terribly traumatized by the events of a crime — suffered heartbreaking anguish after finding out Tennessee’s justice system is not what they thought it was.
The realization that most criminals, on average, only serve about a third of the time they’re sentenced to can be devastating for victims and their families.
Unless an offender receives life without parole, the time they’ll serve is based on a complex mathematical equation established in 1989. Simply stated, the current structure is a grossly inaccurate reflection of the real time that will be served.
More troubling is that our current structure offers very little transparency at the time of sentencing. No one — not a judge, not a prosecutor or even a defendant’s attorney — can accurately tell an offender or a victim how long of a prison sentence will be served.
Accountability and truth in sentencing are fundamental rights every victim deserves. We should be able to tell victims exactly how long a criminal who has harmed them will spend behind bars.
Republicans in the General Assembly joined by Governors Bill Haslam and Bill Lee began in 2015 to lay the groundwork for reforming Tennessee’s current criminal justice system so that it meets present-day standards. Not those of four decades ago.
Separate task force committees from both administrations identified ways to improve public safety and reduce recidivism rates. Since then, Tennessee Republicans have taken a “smart-on-crime” approach to reforming criminal justice.
Two key pieces of legislation passed in 2021 as a result of the work of these committees, including the Alternatives to Incarceration and Reentry to Success Act. These laws support the rehabilitation of non-violent and low-level offenders. Our justice system now provides alternatives to incarceration for individuals who can be safely and effectively monitored and provide additional reentry support.
Another recommendation from the two committees included rewriting Tennessee’s sentencing code to establish a clear period of incarceration that is communicated to all interested parties at the time of sentencing.
This legislative session, we will work to make Tennessee’s sentencing codes more transparent through the Truth in Sentencing Act of 2022.
We know that the overwhelming majority of offenders will be released back into society. Uncertain prison sentences do nothing to make our streets safer.
But knowing exactly when an offender will be released enables our prisons and communities to better rehabilitate and plan for their release based on individual risk factors that put them behind bars in the first place. We will strengthen public safety on the front end by eliminating the guesswork.
This plan preserves the judge’s discretion but will narrow sentencing ranges to reflect current state averages for most felony offenses. Tennessee’s most dangerous criminals — those convicted of murder, rape, sex trafficking, and violent crimes against children — will continue to serve 100% of the maximum sentences without parole.
Truth in sentencing will eliminate time off for good behavior. Instead, we will replace it with a robust evidence-based system of rewards, programs and services during incarceration that will better prepare them to become contributing members of society. This plan will preserve and enhance character-based, faith-based and job-preparation work-release options inside and beyond prison walls.
Parole will be phased out. Victims will no longer have to endure traumatic parole hearings every few years. Truth in sentencing will give the Tennessee Department of Corrections the discretion to evaluate an inmate’s risk factors to best determine how they will be supervised upon release after their full sentence has been served.
The work ahead will not be easy. A more transparent and efficient approach in sentencing will improve public safety and facilitate positive outcomes for all. This reform is long overdue.
Tennesseans deserve a well-functioning justice system that holds criminals accountable but also advances human dignity by supporting those who desire to change.
William Lamberth is the House Majority Leader for the 112th General Assembly. Lamberth lives in Portland and represents Tennessee House District 44, which includes part of Sumner County.