New Tennessee state law means mandatory minimum sentences

A new Tennessee state law means - mandatory minimum jail and prison time for people who commit certain crimes. It's part of the Public Safety Act of 2016 that went into effect New Year's Day.

The law applies to people who are convicted of their third felony burglary or drug charge. The law sets the mandatory minimum period of time served - to at least 85%.

With jails and prisons at or over capacity across the state, NewsChannel 9 wanted to find out if the new law would impact those facilities.

"Every jail in the state is probably overcrowded," said Bradley County Sheriff Eric Watson. "There's not a jail anywhere probably in the United States that's not overcrowded."

The Tennessee Department of Correction says the state prison system is at 90% capacity. At the Bradley County Jail, there's just over 400 beds. But Sheriff Eric Watson says - there's more than 500 inmates. The jail is packed with county offenders, along with some inmates there as overflow from crowded state prisons.

And now with the new law, people must serve at least 85 percent of the time sentenced for their third felony burglary or drug charge. But Sheriff Watson says there's one reason overcrowding won't be a problem in Bradley County, even with the new law.

"I don't think it will really impact because come May or June, hopefully the Workhouse of Bradley County will open up and that's going to be 107 beds," said Sheriff Watson. "Hopefully that's going to take a lot of the misdemeanor, minor violators out of the main jail."

Construction of the workhouse at the Justice Center already started. People who've committed misdemeanors will pay a daily fee to be in the program. They'll go to work in the day, and return to the workhouse jail at night. Watson says it will make room in the regular jail for serious offenders, like the ones impacted by the new law.

"Sometimes the court is real lenient towards certain people and certain crimes, and this is one of those laws that's been needed for to change to mandatory jail sentence," said Sheriff Watson. "A lot of times the court will put people who commit crimes like this on probation, house arrest and now they'll actually have to go to jail. And I think that will help the crimes go away to a point."

The Hamilton County Jail says - the law will not impact its facility - because they generally only house inmates awaiting trial.

In a statement to NewsChannel 9, the TDOC said, "We do not expect any negative changes to our offender population as a result of the Public Safety Act. In fact, we expect the PSA, through its mandates regarding graduated sanctions and incentives, will help us reduce our incarcerated population and lower recidivism. TDOC was a collaborating partner with the PSA from the very beginning for that reason."

The new law also makes three or more domestic violence convictions a felony now, instead of a misdemeanor.

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