Families of violent crimes at peace after passage of ‘Truth In Sentencing’ bill

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A bill that received the green light from lawmakers this week is aimed at keeping violent criminals behind bars longer. The ‘Truth in Sentencing’ legislation takes a firm look at the parole system.

Related: East Tennessee families push for ‘Truth In Sentencing’ bill

Lawmakers passed HB197/SB215 which creates a minimum amount of time an inmate convicted of a violent crime will have to serve.

Families of crime victims say they have feelings of excitement and fulfillment, but there’s still a bitter sting as this still won’t bring their loved ones back.

“I will be sad until the day I die,” said Joan Berry.

Berry’s daughter Johnia was killed in 2004 by a stranger who broke into her apartment. Taylor Olson was charged in her murder, but he hanged himself in jail.

“When this first happens you just think that the justice system, everything is on your side because it’s happened to somebody innocent. Then you learn that our laws are really lacking,” said Berry.

Berry has worked with lawmakers for several years to change that. Berry says there’s a relief knowing the bill, known as the “Truth in Sentencing” bill, will soon be law.

“There’s no peace. You’re constantly going back and fighting the system,” she explained.

“Truth In Sentencing” is a two-part bill that takes effect on July 1, 2019. An inmate convicted of a Class A, B or C felony, which is generally a violent crime, will serve their minimum sentence. Lawmakers say early release credits go on the back side of their sentence.

“Certainty is important because when you make a decision to enter a plea of guilty, or you’re a victim and you see someone going to jail or you approve a plea agreement, you need to know exactly what you’re getting,” said legal analyst Greg Isaacs.

Those convicted of Class D and E felonies, typically non-violent crimes, are given release eligibility dates. Lawmakers say the state’s Department of Corrections is working on a policy to deal with this law change.

“Instead of ‘Truth in Sentencing,’ really the bill should be more ‘Certainty in Sentencing’ because what this says now is if you have a lesser felony, you’ll most likely get released on your release eligibility date. On the other hand, the serious felonies, you’re not going to get any breaks,” added Isaacs.

Berry believes more needs to be done but this is a good step forward,

“There’s really no words to express how it impacts your life or how you feel when you’ve lost a loved one to the hands of someone else. We’ll be sad forever, but at least we’re getting a little more justice,” said Berry.

The bill is currently awaiting the governor’s signature. It comes with a large price tag of more than $7 million a year.

Lawmakers say the bill will only apply to felony violent crimes that happen after the law is in place and will not be applied retroactively.

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