After Memphis killings, officials push harsh sentencing laws

Sep 8, 2022, 8:22 AM | Updated: 8:45 pm

Members of the Hispanic community gather for a vigil in the parking lot of an Auto Zone, Thursday, ...

Members of the Hispanic community gather for a vigil in the parking lot of an Auto Zone, Thursday, Sept. 8, 2022, in Memphis, Tenn. A live streaming gunman drove around shooting at people, killing four and wounding three others last night, including one of the incidents occurring inside the Auto Zone. (AP Photo/John Amis)

(AP Photo/John Amis)

The high-profile killings rattling Memphis this week have added fuel to calls by some politicians for stricter sentencing laws throughout the U.S., sparking alarm among criminal justice reform advocates who say that approach is outdated and ineffective.

The political division has only deepened as many maintain that the deaths — of a jogger last week and a spate of shooting victims Wednesday — would have been avoided had the latest version of Tennessee’s so-called “truth in sentencing” statute been in effect.

Such measures generally require those convicted of certain felony crimes to serve at least 85% of their imposed sentences. The new Tennessee law, which took effect July 1, now requires defendants to serve entire sentences for certain convictions and updates the list of convictions where at least 85% of a sentence must be served.

While the laws’ backers are largely Republicans, Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland, a Democrat, also said that if the state’s law had been in place earlier, the killings would not have happened. “This is no way for us to live, and it is not acceptable,” he said.

The arguments frustrate those who want to eliminate harsh sentencing laws. They counter that such tough-on-crime policies don’t reduce crime rates and only further spike prison populations.

“The vast majority of people who come home from prison never engage in gun violence,” David Muhammad, executive director of the National Institute for Criminal Justice Reform, said in an interview.

Muhammad has worked in Memphis and said he previously had a meeting scheduled with Strickland for next week. He plans to promote investing in community violence prevention programs rather than stricter sentences.

“The issue with truth in sentencing is that it eliminates the possibility that somebody might be prepared for release sooner and that all people sort of are corrected at a certain period of time, which is of course not true,” said Ashley Nellis, a senior research analyst with The Sentencing Project. “People reform over different periods of time that fluctuate from person to person.”

But as calls to revisit so-called truth in sentencing laws have increased, lawmakers on both sides of the political aisle have remained hesitant to do so out of fear of looking weak on crime, Nellis added.

Tennessee was among the small handful of states that have required individuals to serve a minimum amount of their sentences since the 1980s — when the idea initially began taking off. However, under the 1994 federal crime bill signed by President Bill Clinton, states were given incentives to adopt such laws by promising them more money to build prisons if they did so. By 1998, nearly 30 states had adopted some form of “truth in sentencing” as the incarcerated population and the number of prisons grew.

The percentage of sentences that must be served varies, as well as the crimes covered by the law, but they can range anywhere from 50% to 100%.

GOP leaders in Tennessee have used the recent killings in Memphis to tout the state’s strict new sentencing measure and to call for stricter measures.

Earlier this week, U.S. Marshals arrested Cleotha Abston, 38, in connection with the killing of Eliza Fletcher, who was abducted last week during a pre-dawn run.

Abston previously kidnapped a prominent Memphis attorney in 2000 when he was 16 years old. He spent 20 years in prison for that crime, but he had been sentenced to 24.

“This case not only proves that the recently passed Truth in Sentencing Act was necessary, but that it was long overdue,” Tennessee Lt. Gov. Randy McNally said in a statement. Fletcher, he declared, “would be alive today” if Abston had completed his full sentence. On Thursday, he told The Associated Press that the events show that “we do need the law and possibly need to expand the law.”

On Wednesday, a gunman livestreamed himself driving around Memphis shooting at people, killing four and wounding three others in seemingly random attacks. After Ezekiel Kelly was identified, some pointed out that he he had been released early from a prison sentence for aggravated assault — something that would not be allowed under the state’s current law.

Kelly was sentenced to three years in prison, but was released in March after serving just over two years behind bars, including credit he received for time he was jailed prior to his plea.

“He had a violent history,” said Tennessee House Speaker Cameron Sexton, a Republican. “And you cannot treat violent criminals the same as nonviolent.”

Sexton said he would support removing or reducing a credit program that helps inmates shave more time off their sentences for good behavior and trying juveniles as adults if they commit violent crimes. Those proposals will likely be introduced during the 2023 legislative session, which starts in January.

But Stephanie Wylie, counsel in the Brennan Center’s Justice Program, said strict sentencing laws eliminate the incentive for people in prison to take rehabilitative classes in exchange for reducing their time.

“These classes make it easier for incarcerated people to reintegrate into the community,” Wylie said.

And Kate Trammell with the nonprofit Prison Fellowship stressed that justice is about more than prison time.

“(Justice) demands that time behind bars prepare people to live as good citizens,” she said. “The suggestion that removing rehabilitation incentives from sentencing laws could make communities safer is a dangerous step backward. Instead, we must take what we have learned about justice that restores and use it to protect our neighbors.”


Associated Press writers Jonathan Mattise and Adrian Sainz contributed to this report.

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


FILE - Idaho Attorney General candidate Rep. Raul Labrador speaks during the Idaho Republican Party...

Associated Press

Families sue to block Idaho law barring gender-affirming care for minors

The families of two transgender teenagers filed a lawsuit Thursday to block enforcement of Idaho's ban on gender-affirming medical care for minors.

15 hours ago

Amazon agreed Wednesday to pay a $25 million civil penalty to settle Federal Trade Commission alleg...

Associated Press

Amazon fined $25M for violating child privacy with Alexa

Amazon agreed Wednesday to pay a $25 million civil penalty to settle Federal Trade Commission allegations it violated a child privacy law

15 hours ago

FILE - Candles are lit on a memorial wall during an anniversary memorial service at the Holy Trinit...

Associated Press

Pain and terror felt by passengers before Boeing Max crashed can be considered, judge rules

Families of passengers who died in the crash of a Boeing 737 Max in Ethiopia can seek damages for the pain and terror suffered by victims in the minutes before the plane flew nose-down into the ground, a federal judge has ruled.

2 days ago

OpenAI's CEO Sam Altman, the founder of ChatGPT and creator of OpenAI speaks at University College ...

Associated Press

Artificial intelligence threatens extinction, experts say in new warning

Scientists and tech industry leaders issued a new warning Tuesday about the perils that artificial intelligence poses to humankind.

2 days ago

Amazon agreed Wednesday to pay a $25 million civil penalty to settle Federal Trade Commission alleg...

Associated Press

Hundreds of Amazon workers protest company’s climate impact, return-to-office mandate

SEATTLE (AP) — Telling executives to “strive harder,” hundreds of corporate Amazon workers protested what they decried as the company’s lack of progress on climate goals and an inequitable return-to-office mandate during a lunchtime demonstration at its Seattle headquarters Wednesday. The protest came a week after Amazon’s annual shareholder meeting and a month after a […]

3 days ago


Associated Press

Body of avalanche victim in Washington state recovered after being spotted by volunteer

Search crews have recovered the body of a climber who was one of three killed in an avalanche on Washington's Colchuck Peak in February.

3 days ago

Sponsored Articles

Internet Washington...

Major Internet Upgrade and Expansion Planned This Year in Washington State

Comcast is investing $280 million this year to offer multi-gigabit Internet speeds to more than four million locations.

Compassion International...

Brock Huard and Friends Rally Around The Fight for First Campaign

Professional athletes are teaming up to prevent infant mortality and empower women at risk in communities facing severe poverty.

Emergency Preparedness...

Prepare for the next disaster at the Emergency Preparedness Conference

Being prepared before the next emergency arrives is key to preserving businesses and organizations of many kinds.

SHIBA volunteer...

Volunteer to help people understand their Medicare options!

If you’re retired or getting ready to retire and looking for new ways to stay active, becoming a SHIBA volunteer could be for you!

safety from crime...

As crime increases, our safety measures must too

It's easy to be accused of fearmongering regarding crime, but Seattle residents might have good reason to be concerned for their safety.

Comcast Ready for Business Fund...

Ilona Lohrey | President and CEO, GSBA

GSBA is closing the disparity gap with Ready for Business Fund

GSBA, Comcast, and other partners are working to address disparities in access to financial resources with the Ready for Business fund.

After Memphis killings, officials push harsh sentencing laws