One item on Gov. Bill Lee’s agenda has been criminal justice reform, and two bills that the governor is pushing in this area have passed out of the committee system and are set to be heard on the House floor this Thursday morning. However, if these bills — which are reckless and soft on crime — pass, then Tennesseans should be very concerned for public safety. I am one of only a few attorneys serving in the legislature, having worked in the criminal justice system for more than 30 years. I have served as an assistant district attorney, an assistant attorney general and a criminal defense attorney. And while I acknowledge the criminal justice system in Tennessee is broken and in need of reform, Lee’s legislation horrifies me and is not the way to do it. Lee’s legislation is designed to release as many criminals from prison as possible and make it extremely difficult for prosecutors to put them back behind bars for the purpose of saving money on incarceration at the expense of public safety. I voted against Lee’s bills when they were presented before the House Criminal Justice Committee and even made a motion to send one of the bills to “Summer Study” in an effort to kill it. At the time the bills were presented in Committee, I enumerated what I described as the many problems with Lee’s ‘soft on crime’ legislation, enumerating some of them as follows: • It allows for the wholesale early release of career criminals, including those who have attempted to commit murder. • It does not consider the criminal histories of inmates or the individual circumstances of their offenses before releasing them back into the community. • It allows violent felons to be released early with no notice to their victims. If this legislation passes, victims everywhere face the real possibility of not being aware their attacker is out of prison until they come face-to-face with them at the grocery store or, God forbid, their front door. • It gives automatic parole to violent, dangerous criminals and releases them back onto the street early, irregardless of the circumstances of their particular offense or criminal histories. • It will render crime victims powerless in the parole process. Regardless of how moving or compelling the crime victim’s testimony or great the risk posed to the victim’s safety by early release, the Parole Board will have no choice but to let the inmate back onto the streets. • It will remove the deterrent effect that many of our criminal statues try to achieve. • It will release inmates into the community who have done nothing to improve themselves while in prison, such as getting an education or learning a job skill. These inmates will be no better equipped to support themselves when they are released than when they entered prison, and they will be more likely to return to criminal activity as a means of making money. • The penalties this legislation proposes for violating probation or parole are arbitrary and insignificant. Limiting a violation to 15 days in a county jail has no deterrent effect! Someone who violates their probation or parole by using illegal drugs, refusing to work, refusing to make restitution to a victim or committing new crimes while out on probation or parole should have to serve more than 15 days in the county jail, which is nothing more than a slap on the wrist. Being granted probation or parole is a privilege, and abuse of such privilege by continued criminal conduct after being released back onto the street deserves more than just two weeks in the local jail. This legislation will provide criminals with more “bites at the apple” than the vast majority of Tennessee judges would ever permit. It will also eliminate judicial discretion. • And it will remove authority over parole from a small, independent board, which considers public safety to be one of its top concerns when determining who should be released early from prison. And it will place that power in the hands of a government “department” which values saving money and reducing the prison population over anything else. This “soft on crime” legislation will further victimize victims and will automatically put dangerous convicted felons back onto the street, some of whom have as much as 80% of their sentence left to serve. These will include felons who have strangled, stabbed or shot innocent victims; felons who have attempted armed robbery or armed kidnapping; arsonists; stalkers who have caused serious bodily injury during the course of stalking; and home invaders. Everyone I know who works in the criminal justice system opposes this legislation, including district attorneys, judges, law enforcement and probation/parole officers. I encourage Tennesseans to ask their district attorney or their local judge what they think about this legislation. In fact, the Tennessee District Attorney General’s Conference testified against this legislation when it was presented in committee. One of the government’s main functions is to provide safety and security and law and order, but this reckless legislation does exactly the opposite —– all in the name of saving money. The bottom line is that the governor does not want to spend money on incarceration, even if it compromises public safety. One of the areas Lee should look at addressing is mental health treatment. A significant percentage of individuals are sitting in jail because of mental health issues. Placing these individuals behind bars is not an appropriate or long-term solution. The governor should be addressing this problem, but he isn’t it. Another area of needed reform in Tennessee is “truth in sentencing,” which House Speaker Cameron Sexton is trying to accomplish this legislative session. I applaud and support this legislation, which I am proud to co-sponsor.
BRUCE GRIFFEY, R-Paris, represents the 75th District, which includes Henry County, in the Tennessee House of Representatives. His email is rep.bruce.griffey@ capitol.tn.gov.