FAMILY ABUSE – Part 3

By Matthew F. Stowe, District Attorney General 24th Judicial District (Benton, Carroll, Decatur, Hardin & Henry Counties)

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WHAT CAN BE DONE?

Tennessee has been a leader in addressing abuse within the family.  Many new laws have been enacted and other enhancements have been added that help authorities in reporting, arrests, prosecution, and safety measures.   Last week we enumerated many of the actions that have been put into action.  But…is there more we can do more to protect the family?

Yes!  There is always room for improvement. Some possible changes include:

  • • criminal justice reform that includes truth in sentencing,
  • • enhanced sentences for the most violent offenders,
  • • more options to preserve testimony and minimize courtroom trauma for victims,
  • • expanded protective orders enhanced cooling-off periods, and
  • • supporting and/or mandating abuse intervention programs.
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Truth in sentencing means a sentence announced by the court bears some actual resemblance to the sentence served by the defendant.  Presently, most sentences announced by courts are not accurate statements of the realistic punishment.  The offenders actually only serve the tiniest fraction of the sentence imposed.  Because our criminal justice system is overwhelmed with inmates, prisons often use mitigating standards (such as good behavior) to shorten the sentence of a convicted person. 

For instance, virtually no sentences are actually served 85% of the allotment of time, and NO sentences are served at 100% of the allotted time.  Instead, almost all sentences are served “at range.”  If a sentence is served “at range” (which is determined by past criminal history), defendant is eligible for parole after serving only 30% of their time.  With the addition of “jail credits” (credit for time served in custody prior to conviction and sentencing), real time may be closer to 10% of time to be served.  (Note: defendants can earn up to 3.5 days credit for every day served in custody prior to conviction and sentencing.) I use a rule of thumb when talking to crime victims that when a sentence is served “at range,” expect the defendant to serve about one month for every year of their sentence. 

Can you now better understand why we have a violent crime problem in Tennessee?

Moreover, in computing sentences that are served “at range,” the Tennessee Department of Corrections sentence calculations are determined in secret (no public announcement) and only done after the defendant has been officially sentenced.  This means that no District Attorney can tell a victim or family of a victim when the defendant will be released.  Likewise, Defense Attorneys and Public Defenders cannot explain to their clients how long he/she will be incarcerated.  Both victim and defendant deserve to know the reality of the punishment.

District Attorneys General are currently working on solutions that can ensure more accurate sentences, such as mandating:

  • Aggravated abuse sentences to be truly served at 85% of the sentenced time.
  • • All persons convicted of Family Abuse to serve a minimum number of days in jail.
  • • Making the minimum range for abusers to be at a Range 2 level.

Other actions that could assist in curtailing family abuses include things such as more support for abuse and addiction programs.  Studies show that, in the domestic violence context, batterer’s intervention programs have great success rates.  The Batterer’s Intervention Program in Paris, for example, has dramatically lowered recidivism.  For low-level offenders, moving their cases from higher criminal courts to lower level “family courts” can be beneficial as well.  

While Tennessee’s criminal justice system has progressed, our job is not complete.  We must now work with the public to better understand the causes and effects of abuse.  Every citizen can make a difference in some small way! Through education, support programs and family discussions, we can act to end the cycle of abuse. 

Thank you for giving me the honor of being your voice in the courtroom.  It is the gift of lifetime to champion these issues for you, both inside the courtroom and out.

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