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Tennessee debates bill that would keep thousands of people imprisoned for much longer

DANIEL ESTRIN, HOST:

Nationwide, the number of people in prison has been shrinking for years. Many states are sending away fewer people and, in some cases, releasing them sooner. Tennessee could soon take a big step in the opposite direction. Samantha Max of member station WPLN says lawmakers there are considering a bill that would keep thousands of people behind bars for much longer.

SAMANTHA MAX, BYLINE: For months, Tennessee lawmakers have been debating a bill that would overhaul the state's sentencing formula. At a hearing in February, a father whose son was recently killed urged lawmakers to pass it.

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ANDY RAINER: Good afternoon. My name is Andy Rainer. I am from...

MAX: Rainer's son was sleeping in his bed in Memphis when a group broke into his apartment, robbed his roommates and shot him. Rainer said one of the people charged in his son's killing was on probation after multiple past arrests.

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RAINER: And in my opinion, he should have been in prison. If this law had been in effect, I would not be here today.

MAX: The bill is called truth in sentencing. It would require people convicted of many violent crimes and some cases of drug dealing to serve 100% of their sentence with no chance of early release.

This is not a new concept.

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MAX: Let's go back to 1994.

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BILL CLINTON: The American people have been waiting a long time for this day.

MAX: President Bill Clinton stood before a crowd about to sign the federal Crime Bill. It promised funding for states that passed truth in sentencing laws. He hoped that locking people up for longer would stem a surge in violent crime.

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CLINTON: Let us roll up our sleeves to roll back this awful tide of violence and reduce crime in our country. We have the tools now. Let us get about the business of using them.

(APPLAUSE)

MAX: Before long, more than half the country adopted similar measures. Fast forward to now, and many states have rolled back those policies because they cause prison populations to swell largely with Black and brown folks. And research suggests they didn't do much to make communities safer. But in Tennessee, truth in sentencing still has widespread support from Republican lawmakers.

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JERRY SEXTON: I believe in truths in sentence. I will be voting for this bill.

BRUCE GRIFFEY: It's needed in Tennessee.

BUD HULSEY: It's vital to hold violent offenders accountable for their actions while also protecting victims in the public, which is a principle we as Republicans say we believe.

MAX: Those were state representatives Jerry Sexton, Bruce Griffey and Bud Hulsey. But even some conservatives worry this proposal could cause more problems than it solves, including Tony Parker, who ran Tennessee's prison system for five years before retiring last fall.

TONY PARKER: The job and the true mission of corrections is to take that person from day one and focus on reentry.

MAX: Parker's main concern is that without early release, people will lose the motivation to participate in programs like college classes, anger management programs and addiction treatment. That means less rehabilitation and, he fears, more violence both while they're behind bars and once they get out.

PARKER: Ninety-five percent will be returning to a community.

MAX: Parker wants them to be better neighbors when that happens.

PARKER: The best way to do that for a correctional employee is to use the tools that you have. When you manipulate that formula and take away the tools, it's not good for public safety, absolutely not.

MAX: It's not good for taxpayers either, Parker and others say. More staff would have to be hired. New prisons would need to be built. Lawmakers estimated it would cost about $27 million a year to house all those extra people. But the Department of Correction thinks the price tag would be even higher - much higher. Democratic Senator Lamar London (ph) of Memphis isn't sure it's worth it.

LONDON LAMAR: An additional 27 million to incarcerate more people.

MAX: Lamar says she's concerned about violence. She cosponsored a bill to treat it as a public health crisis. But she doesn't think truth in sentencing is the best way.

LAMAR: I just have a lot of heartburn about the fact that we are furthering increase in this prison population. And there are so many different other ways and avenues we can take to prevent violent crime.

MAX: The governor hasn't said if he would sign the bill into law. He ran on a platform of criminal justice reform. But in an election year in a red state, what criminal justice reform actually means depends on who you're talking to.

For NPR News, I'm Samantha Max.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.