East Tennessee families push for ‘Truth In Sentencing’ bill

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This week is one where families pause, thinking about loved ones they’ve lost to violence. The purpose of National Crime Victims’ Rights Week is to remember victims of crime, their families and those who helped them through it.

The other part of this is where loved ones call for change. A number of East Tennessee families want more rights. They hope lawmakers pass the Truth In Sentencing bill.

Richard Sommerville is close to his daughter’s heart every day. 

“My dad was my everything and it hurts. He’s gone and we can’t get him back,” said Sally Sommerville.

Richard Sommerville was killed in 2013 during a robbery at Down Home Pharmacy. Jason Holt was convicted and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

“I believe in an eye for an eye and there’s no justice until he’s gone for me,” said Sally Sommerville.

Sommerville is part of Hope for Victims, alongside Joan Berry. Berry’s daughter, Johnia, was killed in 2004 when a stranger broke into her apartment. Taylor Olson was arrested and charged in her murder, but he hanged himself in jail.

“We all think it will never happen to us and then you get that dreadful call. Let’s work together to make Tennessee a safer place,” said Berry.

Both families will be in Nashville this week, pinning purple ribbons on legislators and asking them to remember their loved ones who were taken in a violent crime.

Berry hopes legislation passes this year regarding truth In sentencing. 

“When you go to trial and their sentence is handed down, you think, ‘Oh well, they got 80 years.’ But then you realize, wow, they might only pull a third of that time,” Berry said.

Lawmakers are working on House Bill 197 and Senate Bill 215 which addresses that.

“If someone asks ‘What’s going to be the sentence?’ Don’t know. Could be around here and it also changes from if you’re in Knox County versus Shelby County, Hamilton County. So a sentence isn’t a sentence,” explained State Sen. Jon Lundberg.

Lawmakers say this legislation essentially creates a minimum amount of time an inmate will have to serve.

“And what we’ve done is said, ‘Okay for these three felonies: A, B and C felonies, we’re going to limit the amount of credits you can have.’ You can use the credits but they go to the extended part of your sentence, not your R.E.D. or release eligibility date,” said Lundberg.

While this legislation comes with a hefty price tag, more than $7 million a year, there are families wanting this change to become a reality.

“Johnia doesn’t get a second chance. All the other victims, they don’t get a second chance. We just want true justice,” said Berry.

Truth In sentencing legislation is heading to the finance committee next. If it passes and eventually becomes law, it will go into effect July 1, 2019.

Lundberg says the bill will only apply to felony violent crimes that happened after the law is in place.

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