Depending on the numbers you have, the truth in punishment legislation making its way through the Tennessee General Assembly will cost state taxpayers $40 million or $77 million a year.
On Wednesday, the Tennessee Senate Judiciary Committee passed the bill in a party vote. The bill would require those convicted of a wide range of different crimes to serve 100% of their sentence. Credits for good behavior would not count for parole.
The tax memo attached to the bill says felons serving 100% of their sentence will cost state taxpayers $40 million a year a decade after it becomes law. This estimate was prepared by the staff of the Tennessee General Assembly. The Tennessee Department of Corrections estimated it will cost the state $77 million per year 10 years after its enactment.
The two estimates are $37 million apart. USA Today Network-Tennessee received the estimates from TDOC. An amended version of the bill at the Tennessee House has a much lower tax impact – $27 million.
During committee testimony on the bill on Wednesday, TDOC General Counsel Torrey Grimes said the department submitted an estimate that was ultimately not reflected in the tax memo. Committee members were not aware of the different estimates.
Grimes noted that last year’s General Assembly changed its calculation of tax scores on incarceration issues. The legislature previously used a framework developed in the 1980s when state prisons were under federal oversight.
“In our defense and that of Fiscal Review, we haven’t had a lot of time to refine this process,” Grimes said of the new formula. “I think that figure reflected in the bill is around $51 per day. If you recall, in previous years it was a figure of $70, $80 per day. Previous years included fixed costs and maintenance.”
The bill’s Senate sponsor, Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, R-Oak Ridge, was unaware of the discrepancy in the estimates until Wednesday’s meeting, spokesman Adam Kleinheider said.
“Situations like these are the very reason the General Assembly has an independent budget review committee,” Kleinheider said. “While the administration’s inputs and data are both appreciated and valued, it is essential that members of the General Assembly have an independent analysis of the budget impact before taking legislative action. C is what the budget review provides.
The passage is a major step in the bill, also sponsored by Tennessee House Speaker Cameron Sexton, which becomes law. The bill also has the support of Memphis Mayor Jim Stricklandwho endorsed the bill and appeared with Sexton to brag about it.
Sexton, for his part, played down the differences between the cost estimates and the cost in general.
“The tax notes are only estimates. I’m not concerned about the perceived cost of a department; I fear that Tennesseans feel safe in their homes, communities and on their streets. There is no cost too great to bear in protecting victims, their families and our citizens from violent criminals,” Sexton said in a statement.
The president of the Senate judiciary expresses reservations
David Raybin of the Tennessee Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers spoke against the legislation on Wednesday, warning that the legislation would effectively double or triple some sentences.
“The number of people affected by this bill is astronomical,” Raybin said. “Enacting this law would mean that you would build a prison or two a year to cope with the doubling and tripling of sentences that this bill would enact.
Tennessee prisons currently have about 92% capacity, Grimes said.
As the bill passed out of committee in a party line vote, Sen. Mike Bell, R-Riceville, who chairs the committee, abstained from voting. Bell said he was torn over the bill.
“I hope that as we continue to discuss transparency in sentencing, we don’t lose sight of the objective, which is to ensure that a person does not re-offend again, which will bring down the crime rate. I’m not necessarily sure that a strict ‘truth in sentencing’ framework will get us to that ultimate goal,” Bell said.
The leadership-backed legislation enjoys strong support among Republicans in the General Assembly, but it advances at odds with a swathe of Governor Bill Lee-supported the 2021 criminal justice reforms designed to steer people away from state incarceration.
“I believe truth in sentencing is of critical importance,” McNally said in a statement Wednesday. “It protects victims and provides real accountability to those who commit crimes. I am grateful for the Judiciary Committee’s vote on the bill and look forward to the Senate Finance Committee considering the cost of the bill. of law, which I believe is warranted to keep violent criminals behind bars and law-abiding Tennesseans safe.
Lee, during a visit to Memphis two weeks ago, declined to endorse the legislation and referred to the cost compared to criminal justice reforms passed a year earlier.
Samuel Hardiman covers Memphis city government and politics for The Commercial Appeal. He can be reached by email at [email protected] or followed on Twitter at @samhardiman.
Melissa Brown covers politics and state government for The Tennessean. She can be reached at [email protected]