By Senator Page Walley
Two tragic and high profile murder cases in Memphis this month have highlighted the need for truth in sentencing legislation passed by our General Assembly earlier this year. The new law was created to protect victims of violent crime by forcing convicts to serve the entirety of their prison sentence without the possibility of parole.
The teacher, Eliza Fletcher, was abducted while on an early morning jog near the University of Memphis and her body was found on September 2. Her alleged killer, Cleotha Abston, had been sentenced to 24 years in prison for a 2001 kidnapping conviction, but was released early after 20 years.
Days later, a man killed four people in a shooting rampage throughout Memphis and posted live videos of the murders on social media. The 19-year-old man authorities say is responsible, Ezekiel Kelly, had been sentenced to three years in prison after pleading guilty to aggravated assault in 2020, but was released early after 11 months.
Had the new truth in sentencing law been in effect prior to the release of these suspects, they would still be behind bars, unable to commit the crimes with which they are charged. These tragic murders could have been prevented. The legislation requires those convicted of any of eight violent offenses to serve 100% of the sentence imposed before becoming eligible for release. Attempted first degree murder, second degree murder and especially aggravated kidnapping are among those offenses.
A person convicted of any of those offenses could still earn credits for good behavior, but those credits could only be used for increased privileges while in prison and cannot be used to reduce a sentence.
The legislation also requires those convicted of any of 16 other offenses to serve at least 85% of their sentence. Those offenses include voluntary manslaughter, reckless homicide and criminally negligent homicide, among others.
The Truth in Sentencing bill protects victims and provides true accountability for those who commit violent crimes. When a sentence is levied on a violent criminal, our justice system has spoken and the decision should be final. Victims should be able to trust that their attackers will indeed serve the prison sentence they deserve. Anything less means justice is not served.
Truth in sentencing laws can reduce crime by keeping violent offenders off the streets longer and by deterring other would-be offenders. When potential offenders see that a 20-year sentence for a certain crime means just that, and is not a 10- or 15-year sentence in disguise, they might think twice before committing that crime.
Too often, sentence reductions are awarded to convicts who are as dangerous as ever, and only serve to create more victims. That appears to be true for the recent murders in Memphis, allegedly committed by perpetrators released early from prison due to a longstanding flaw in our justice system. The truth in sentencing law corrects that flaw and will help reduce these heinous crimes moving forward.
As we approach the 2023 legislation session, we’ll be working to strengthen our laws to prevent crime, protect the victims of crime, and hold those who commit crime accountable.