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AP File Photo/Mark Humphrey / Trousdale Turner Correctional Center, Tennessee's newest prison, is in Hartsville.

It's not as if Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee hadn't made his point clear on the issue.

When he initially ran for governor in 2018, the Franklin businessman pitched criminal justice reform in his campaign.

"Bill will reform our criminal justice system," read his platform, "working to make sure those who are incarcerated are prepared to re-enter society, not re-enter prison."

As governor-elect, he told a Murfreesboro audience he wanted to be tough on crime but also smart on crime.

"I want to work with leaders for sentencing reform, judicial reform, intake reform, re-entry reform," he said.

So it was no surprise that Lee did not sign the "truth-in-sentencing" bill that both the state House and Senate passed last month. Instead of vetoing it, which would have taken only a simple majority to override, he chose to let it become law without his signature.

Some around the state are expressing surprise the conservative Lee would not back a bill that forces many of the most violent criminals to serve all of their given prison terms, in some cases, and 85% of their terms, in others.

But the governor, touched during his business career by his volunteer experience with the prison ministry organization Men of Valor, convened a Criminal Justice Investment Task Force five months after taking office in 2019.

"Over the past 10 years, Tennessee's incarceration rate has risen to 10 percent above the national average," the report's opening paragraph read, and its communities are no safer for it. Despite incarcerating more people and spending over $1 billion annually on corrections in the state budget, Tennessee has the fourth highest violent crime rate in the nation and a high recidivism rate, with nearly half of individuals rearrested within three years of their release from custody."

"It's clear we cannot incarcerate our way out of the issues facing Tennessee's criminal justice system," the then-commissioner of the state Department of Corrections said.

"Currently, we are spending too much to send too many people to prison for too long," said the then-House Judiciary Committee chairman.

The report went on to detail how the average sentence served by Tennessee prisoners convicted of all types of offenses — including nonviolent crimes — increased from 2009 to 2018.

Lee signed legislation emanating from that report in 2021 that lands fewer offenders in state prisons in part by expanding the number of people eligible to go to recovery courts. It also reduced the amount of time offenders have to be on probation and stopped offenders from returning to prison for violation of parole technicalities.

He also signed legislation last year that made it easier for people to be placed on parole and set up a stronger support system for those released from state prisons.

Whether the legislators' 2022 push for longer sentences came in response to the soft-on-crime Biden presidential administration or the uptick in crime since the defund-the-police movement that followed the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers in 2020 is hard to gauge.

The legislation, which takes effect July 1, calls for 100% of sentences to be served for attempted first-degree murder, second-degree murder, criminally negligent homicide, vehicular homicide, aggravated vehicular homicide, especially aggravated kidnapping, especially aggravated robbery, carjacking and especially aggravated burglary. It calls for 85% of sentences to be served for 14 other crimes.

The cost of the longer sentences, according to a state estimate, is $40 million after eight years. According to Department of Correction numbers, the cost is closer to $80 million. The fiscal note on the bill is slimmer $25.4 million.

Before the bills passed both state houses, the number of crimes for which the full and partial sentences would be served was dialed back. Reading between the lines, that change might have been the difference between a Lee veto and Lee just passing on signing it.

Nevertheless, the governor had his say in a letter to the speakers of both houses.

"Data does not support the basic premise of the legislation," Lee wrote. "Similar legislation has been enacted before and resulted in significant operational and financial strain, with no reduction in crime. 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. For these reasons, I have chosen not to sign the bill."

We have backed many of Lee's previous efforts for criminal justice reform and especially with such efforts for the likes of drug addictions and mental illnesses. We wish this legislation had been tailored more narrowly, perhaps just to a handful of the most violent offenses and perhaps if the crimes were re-offenses.

We hope in Lee's likely second term, the legislature and the governor will seek additional common ground on criminal justice reform, the result being — as Lee said in 2018 — tough and smart on crime.

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