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File Photo by John Partipilo/Tennessee Lookout / Speaker of the Tennessee House Cameron Sexton, Lt. Gov. Randy McNally and Gov. Bill Lee are pictured in this undated file photo.

A day after Gov. Bill Lee declined to sign strict truth-in-sentencing legislation, but allowed it to become law despite his disagreement, the bill's sponsors fired back.

"You can protect criminals, or you can protect victims. I stand with victims, as do members of law enforcement, our district attorneys and criminal judges across Tennessee," House Speaker Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville, said in a Twitter statement.

"Sometimes, we need to use common-sense approaches; more violent criminals in jail for longer periods means less crime and fewer victims. Softer sentences means more crime and more victims," Sexton said.

Sexton and Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, who is Senate speaker, pushed the bill to passage this year amid tepid opposition from the governor's administration. They worked out a compromise of sorts that required sentences for nine of the state's most violent offenses to be served at 100% and dropped the sentences for several other offenses identified in the initial legislation to 85%.

Opponents of the bill argued that the bill would take Tennessee back to the early 1990s when the state tried a similar move, only to see prisons become crowded and wind up in a federal takeover. Critics also said the bill could cost from $40 million to $80 million and force the state to build more prisons.

Proponents said the legislation would force violent criminals to serve their entire sentence and avert violence against victims. In many instances, sentences are served at only 30% of the sentencing range, with victims' families uncertain how long their attackers will be held in prison.

"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," McNally said in a statement. "The costs associated with the legislation are well worth the peace of mind offered to victims and the overall boost to public safety."

Offering a bit more of a conciliatory stance than Sexton, McNally said even though he disagrees with Lee's criticism of the legislation, he appreciates his willingness to put the bill in a "posture" to avoid vetoing the measure.

"I am grateful this bill is now the law of the land in Tennessee," McNally said.

Lee notified McNally and Sexton in a Thursday letter that he would not be signing the legislation into law.

"My concern with HB2656/SB2248 is that data does not support the basic premise of the legislation. Similar legislation has been enacted before and resulted in significant operational and financial strain, with no reduction in crime," Lee said in his letter. "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 said he supports efforts to protect victims and did so in joining McNally and Sexton in signing the 2019 Criminal Justice 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."

That effort led to passage of the Alternatives to Incarceration Act and the Re-entry Success Act, he pointed out.

Sexton, however, pointed out a 2020 U.S. Sentencing Commission report found tougher sentences reduce crime and the rate of return to prison by offenders after release. He contended law enforcement officials backed the legislation for that reason.

The House speaker said lawmakers' job is to protect people and support law enforcement, and he added that the state could build more prisons if necessary.

"Either we value life or we don't; this legislation was about the most violent crimes committed in our state," he said. "It's hard to stand with victims and law enforcement by going easy on criminals."

The U.S. Sentencing Commission report from April 2020 found that offenders imprisoned for more than 120 months, or 10 years, were 30-45% less likely to commit crimes and return to prison than a similar group with shorter sentences.

However, the study also failed to find evidence that shorter prison times of 12-24 months either caused more criminal activity or deterred it.

State Rep. Jason Zachary, R-Knoxville, noted on Twitter that FBI data from 2020 showed violent crime increased 13% statewide, with Memphis showing the highest rate in the nation per capita.

"The status quo is not an option," Zachary said.

In contrast, state Rep. John Ray Clemmons, D-Nashville said on Twitter, if the governor had really opposed the legislation, "he could and should have had the backbone to veto it. He doesn't deserve a shred of credit for cowardly sitting on his hands while knowing it is wrong."

The legislature can override a veto with a simple majority in both chambers. To do it immediately, though, the House and Senate would have to register a two-thirds request through the speakers to hold a special session after the legislature adjourned last week.

Read more at TennesseeLookout.com.

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