Tennessee lawmakers visit Chattanooga for ceremonial signing of truth-in-sentencing law

Two weeks after a shooting incident left three people dead and 14 injured on McCallie Avenue, Tennessee lawmakers were in Chattanooga this week as part of a multicity tour celebrating the passage of a new law they say makes the state a national leader in enforcing stiffer penalties for violent crimes.

Flanked by local law enforcement, legislators and victims' families, Lt. Gov. Randy McNally and Tennessee House Speaker Cameron Sexton ceremonially signed what is known as the truth-in-sentencing bill during a Friday news conference at the Hamilton County Courts Building.

The law will go into effect on July 1 without Gov. Bill Lee's signature, as he questioned whether it would work as intended.

"When you travel the state and you talk to a lot of people and you ask them what their No. 1 issue is and what we can do to help, tougher sentencing is the one thing they talk about," Sexton said.

The law requires people convicted of the most violent offenses - including first- and second-degree murder, aggravated vehicular homicide and carjacking - to serve 100% of their sentences.

Meanwhile, people convicted of certain lower-level violent crimes can earn credits through, for example, drug treatment or job training to reduce their sentence from 100% to 85% of time served. The law specifies 20 lower-level crimes that fall into this category, including aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, strangulation and voluntary manslaughter.

"Our laws up until this point were sort of vanilla, and this will actually stop the revolving doors we have in prisons where violent offenders serve about a third or less of their time, and then they're out committing the same crimes again," McNally said.

Angi Hawn was at the signing ceremony Friday to honor her daughter, Skylar Hawn, 24, who was among four people killed in a quadruple homicide on Sept. 25, 2021, in McMinn County. The state is now seeking the death penalty against two defendants accused of the crime, Jazzmine Jacole Hall and Curtis Donnell Smith.

Hawn said her daugher had a big heart, a witty sense of humor and possessed a smile that lit up the room. She had the ability to make people laugh even on their worst days and had the best fashion sense.

Skylar Hawn also left behind a son, who is now 5 years old. Hawn is hopeful the new state law will help prevent further violent crimes in Tennessee.

"I think it'll stop the revolving door in the jails or prisons," she told the Chattanooga Times Free Press by phone. "I think as a whole it's going to have a major effect in a positive way."

Although North Carolina and Florida have passed similar truth-in-sentencing laws, Sexton said, no other state has 100% sentencing with no early release.

Lee has criticized the law, saying the legislation will result in more victims, higher recidivism, increased crime and prison overcrowding - all with an increased cost for taxpayers.

The fiscal note on the bill said that the cost of incarceration will gradually grow to approximately $25.4 million annually in fiscal year 2031-32.

Sexton dismissed critiques on Friday.

"Is there any cost we should bear or not bear to protect society?" Sexton said. "Are we a society who says we need less people in prison and let more bad guys out? This bill takes the very bad of the bad and puts them in prison for a long time."

He expects most law enforcement professionals, judges and prosecutors would agree that's a good idea.

"I'm not worried about the costs," he continued. "I'm not worried about us building new prisons. If that's what we need to do, that's what we need to do."

Sexton cited a U.S Sentencing Commission report that he said states longer sentences reduce recidivism. Common sense, he said, also tells him that if violent criminals are in prison, they can't commit more crimes.

Hamilton County Sheriff Jim Hammond, who is not seeking re-election this year, told reporters that "as word begins to spread," he expects the law will result in less criminal activity.

"It'll take a while for it to spread, but I believe this is a step in the right direction," Hammond said.

Contact David Floyd at dfloyd@timesfreepress.com or at 423-757-6249. Follow him on Twitter @flavid_doyd.