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VOL. 132 | NO. 122 | Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Lawmakers: Talk, Action On Crime Don’t Match

By Bill Dries

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State Senate Minority Leader Lee Harris of Memphis says some of the rhetoric about criminal justice reform – not locking up as many nonviolent offenders for longer sentences – doesn’t match the push for legislation in Nashville.


“There is a gap there that the advocacy on Capitol Hill still from a lot of quarters tends to be around how to put people in prison for longer – even nonviolent offenders – while there is a wider discussion in the community that that hasn’t worked,” Harris said on the WKNO/Channel 10 program “Behind The Headlines.” “That wider discussion in the community seems not to have seeped into some of our work.”

Harris specifically mentioned the Memphis-Shelby Crime Commission’s push for longer prison sentences for any offender carrying a gun, even if no gun was used in the offense they are charged with.

“The only time I talked to them on Capitol Hill was about more incarceration time for generally nonviolent offenders,” Harris said of the crime commission.

Advocates of the state version of a long-standing federal practice of charging convicted felons with gun possession say nonviolent and violent offenders are often the same person.

And in the long-running argument about what is violent crime and what is nonviolent crime, guns and whether they are used is a dividing line.

“It’s being driven by gangs, guns, drugs and domestic violence,” crime commission president Bill Gibbons said in December on the same program as the city’s 2016 homicide count was just about at its record-breaking peak of 228. “Those are the four factors and you can’t really separate those four entirely. They go together.”

Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland has repeatedly said that he wants more jail time for violent offenders and alternatives for nonviolent offenders. Part of his mantra has been that having a gun illegally is a part of the city’s violent crime problem.

Years ago, U.S. District Court Judge Samuel Hardy Mays, during a jury selection process for an unrelated federal case, was telling prospective jurors that the two sides in the case were looking for citizens to serve who would uphold laws that they might not agree with. And he cited the law forbidding convicted felons from having guns.

Mays said he thought the law was bad and that in some cases someone who had done prison time might need a gun for protection in their homes depending on where they lived.

Harris argues that the cost of incarcerating people for a longer time on gun charges is money the state doesn’t have.

“The vast majority of those incidents are incidents that are nonviolent offenders,” Harris said. “We will not have money … to incarcerate people who are committing murders or rapes or spousal abuse.”

The discussions and debates lawmakers have about crime are sometimes prompted by crimes that get a lot of attention. Harris made his points at the end of a week in which 2-year-old Laylah Washington died two days after she was shot in the head during what appeared to be a road rage shooting in Hickory Hill.

Joe Towns

“My heart goes out to that family,” said state representative and fellow Democrat Joe Towns of Memphis, appearing on “Behind The Headlines” with Harris.

“These kinds of situation scare us and they make us as lawmakers and citizens want to have something … but you can’t legislate like that,” Towns said. “When you are afraid and when you are fearful because something has happened, we are doomed to make a mistake. … You are going to go too far.”

Harris said there is a finite amount of funding to incarcerate a state prison population of 20,000.

“The way you find money to incarcerate violent offenders is to make sure you have meaningful reform around the folks that are nonviolent offenders, first-time offenders, young folks who can be redeemed, folks that can come back to our communities and still have a meaningful contribution to make,” he said. “It is very tough work. It’s not something you can put on a bumper sticker.”

“Behind The Headlines,” hosted by Eric Barnes, publisher of The Daily News, can be seen on The Daily News Video page, video.memphisdailynews.com.

Harris and Towns both called a reduction in the $450 expungement fee, approved by the state Legislature this year and signed into law by Gov. Bill Haslam, a victory for criminal justice reform that drew bipartisan support.

And both questioned the need to charge any fee for clearing the criminal record of nonviolent offenders who apply for expungement and have had no criminal record for five years after their release from prison.

“In an ideal world, I would think no there should not be a fee. It appears they are trying to get on the right track. That’s a signal, like somebody wanting to vote,” Towns said. “But the world is not ideal. What we should do is try to keep it nominal. … I don’t think it will be free. But the fact is, it should be that our agencies are funded enough by the government where they don’t need that.”

Harris said one option is no expungement fee for “minor” offenders.

“There is more discrimination against ex-offenders who are looking for employment than there is in terms of race, in terms of poverty,” Harris said. “It is the one thing that a lot of people face, is that challenge to get a job after they are incarcerated.”

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