Tennessee Gov. Lee refuses to sign 'truth in sentencing' bill, draws criticism from House Speaker Sexton

NASHVILLE - Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee has refused to sign into law a controversial "truth in sentencing" bill championed by his fellow Republicans, House Speaker Cameron Sexton and Senate Speaker Randy McNally, saying previous get-tough-on-crime approaches have proven both costly and ineffective.

Because Lee didn't veto the bill, the measure became law Friday anyway. It takes effect July 1.

Gubernatorial vetoes are rare in Tennessee. Lawmakers can override a veto with the same number of votes it takes to pass a bill in the first place: 50 votes in the 99-member House and 17 votes in the 33-member Senate. The House passed the bill on a 86-9 vote while senators approved it 20-7.

But Lee's refusal to sign the speakers' "truth in sentencing" bill and his implicit criticisms of the tough approach later drew criticisms from Sexton.

Among other things, the bill requires people convicted in eight categories of violent crime including attempted first-degree murder and carjacking, to serve 100% of their court-imposed sentences before becoming eligible for parole.

It allows people convicted of 20 other violent offenses to receive sentence reduction credits by taking programming in areas such as education that are aimed at making them less likely to re-offend once they leave prison. But the inmates would still have to serve at least 85% of their sentence. The list of offenses in this category include aggravated assault if the offense involves a deadly weapon.

In his earlier formal message to the General Assembly late Thursday, Lee, who has pushed criminal justice reforms, shared his worries about the legislation's impact.

"My concern with HB 2656/SB 2248 is that data does not support the basic premise of the legislation," Lee wrote in his letter to Sexton and McNally. "Similar legislation has been enacted before and resulted in significant operational and financial strain, with no reduction in crime."

The governor's comments drew a swift public retort from Sexton, who defended the bill and its purpose in stark language.

"You can protect criminals or you can protect victims," said Sexton, who made the legislation one of his top priorities in this year's session. "I stand with victims, as do members of law enforcement, our district attorneys, and criminal judges across Tennessee."

Sexton pointed to a U.S. Sentencing Commission study published in 2020 which he said states that stronger sentencing has a "statistically significant deterrent effect" by reducing crime and lowering recidivism.

"That's why Tennessee's law enforcement community stood behind us and supported this legislation," Sexton added.

In his earlier letter to Sexton and McNally, Lee elaborated on his opposition.

"I believe we share a mutual desire to protect victims and prevent further victims of crime," Lee stated. "This partnership is why we three joined together in 2019 as co-signatories on the Criminal Justice Investment Task Force's mission to use our state's data to move toward a criminal justice system that focuses resources on evidence-based recidivism reduction and crime-prevention strategies that increase public safety and improve outcomes for all Tennesseans."

Lee, a businessman who prior to becoming governor was involved in a faith-based group which worked with prisoners, said that led to "widespread" legislative support for his Alternatives to Incarceration Act and Re-Entry Success Act.

The governor again shared concerns about the speakers' bill.

"Widespread evidence suggests that this policy will result in more victims, higher recidivism, increased crime and prison overcrowding, all with an increased cost to taxpayers," Lee stated. "For those reasons, I have chosen not to sign the bill."

Sexton stated: "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.

"Our job is to keep our communities safe, protect our families and support law enforcement," the speaker added. "If we need to build more prisons, we can. Either we value life or we don't; this legislation was about the most violent crimes committed in our state. It's hard to stand with victims and law enforcement by going easy on criminals."

Senate Speaker McNally, the state's lieutenant governor, took a less combative tone.

"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. The costs associated with the legislation are well worth the peace of mind offered to victims and the overall boost to public safety," McNally said. "While I disagree with Governor Lee's critique of the bill, I appreciate his willingness to work with Speaker Sexton and I to get the bill in a posture to avoid a veto. I am grateful this bill is now the law of the land in Tennessee."

Legislative analysts projected the truth in sentencing measure would result in an additional $40.9 million annual cost. But some critics charged that was a low-ball projection and that costs could reach as high as $90 million a year.

Contact Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.