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sentencing laws throughout the U.S., sparking alarm among criminal justice reform advocates who say that approach is outdated and ineffective.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.

AP

FILE - The FBI seal is displayed on a podium before a news conference at the agency's headquarters ...
Associated Press

Whistleblower: Hundreds left FBI over misconduct in 20 years

WASHINGTON (AP) — A U.S. senator is pressing the FBI for more information after a whistleblower alleged that an internal review found 665 FBI personnel have resigned or retired to avoid accountability in misconduct probes over the past two decades. The whistleblower told the office of Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley, the top Republican on the […]
1 day ago
FILE - The FBI seal is displayed on a podium before a news conference at the agency's headquarters ...
Associated Press

Whistleblower: Hundreds left FBI over misconduct in 20 years

WASHINGTON (AP) — A U.S. senator is pressing the FBI for more information after a whistleblower alleged that an internal review found 665 FBI personnel have resigned or retired to avoid accountability in misconduct probes over the past two decades. The whistleblower told the office of Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley, the top Republican on the […]
1 day ago
This photo provided by the Nebraska National Forest & Grasslands Service shows distant flames Sunda...
Associated Press

Officials: Wildfire in Nebraska Sandhills nearly contained

HALSEY, Neb. (AP) — Firefighters have nearly contained a large wildfire in the Nebraska Sandhills that has burned roughly 30 square miles and that led to the death of a volunteer firefighter, officials said. The Bovee Fire began Sunday and spread quickly because of dry conditions in west-central Nebraska. The Rocky Mountain Complex Incident Management […]
1 day ago
This photo provided by the Nebraska National Forest & Grasslands Service shows distant flames Sunda...
Associated Press

Officials: Wildfire in Nebraska Sandhills nearly contained

HALSEY, Neb. (AP) — Firefighters have nearly contained a large wildfire in the Nebraska Sandhills that has burned roughly 30 square miles and that led to the death of a volunteer firefighter, officials said. The Bovee Fire began Sunday and spread quickly because of dry conditions in west-central Nebraska. The Rocky Mountain Complex Incident Management […]
1 day ago
FILE - Armin Prude, left, and Joe Prude hold an enlarged photo of Daniel Prude, Sept. 3, 2020, who ...
Associated Press

Rochester reaches $12M settlement for Daniel Prude’s kids

ROCHESTER, N.Y. (AP) — City officials agreed to pay $12 million to the children of Daniel Prude, a Black man who died after police held him down until he stopped breathing after encountering him running naked through the snowy streets of Rochester, New York. A federal judge approved the settlement in a court document filed […]
1 day ago
Mississippi Solicitor General Scott Stewart, seen in this July 5, 2022, photo in state chancery cou...
Associated Press

Mississippi seeks to derail federal suits over mental health

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — The U.S. Justice Department overreached in suing Mississippi over its mental health system, the state’s solicitor general has argued to a federal appeals court. A Justice Department attorney countered that there’s ample precedent to show the department has the power to enforce the Americans with Disabilities Act. A three-judge panel of […]
1 day ago

Sponsored Articles

Anacortes Christmas Tree...

Come one, come all! Food, Drink, and Coastal Christmas – Anacortes has it all!

Come celebrate Anacortes’ 11th annual Bier on the Pier! Bier on the Pier takes place on October 7th and 8th and features local ciders, food trucks and live music - not to mention the beautiful views of the Guemes Channel and backdrop of downtown Anacortes.
Swedish Cyberknife Treatment...

The revolutionary treatment of Swedish CyberKnife provides better quality of life for majority of patients

There are a wide variety of treatments options available for men with prostate cancer. One of the most technologically advanced treatment options in the Pacific Northwest is Stereotactic Body Radiation Therapy using the CyberKnife platform at Swedish Medical Center.
Work at Zum Services...

Seattle Public Schools announces three-year contract with Zum

Seattle Public Schools just announced a three-year contract with a brand-new company to the Pacific Northwest to assist with their student transportation: Zum.
Swedish Cyberknife 900x506...

June is Men’s Health Month: Here’s Why It’s Important To Speak About Your Health

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, men in the United States, on average, die five years earlier than women.
...

Anacortes – A Must Visit Summertime Destination

While Anacortes is certainly on the way to the San Juan Islands (SJI), it is not just a destination to get to the ferry… Anacortes is a destination in and of itself!
...

Ready for your 2022 Alaskan Adventure with Celebrity Cruises?

Celebrity Cruises SPONSORED — A round-trip Alaska cruise from Seattle is an amazing treat for you and a loved one. Not only are you able to see and explore some of the most incredible and visually appealing natural sights on the planet, but you’re also able to relax and re-energize while aboard a luxury cruise […]
After Memphis killings, officials push harsh sentencing laws