TRI-CITIES, Tenn. (WJHL) – A controversial bill in Tennessee is off the table, at least for now.
House bill 1532 proposes a law change where those convicted of first-degree murder could be eligible for parole much sooner in their life sentences.
The bill’s former sponsor in the Tennessee House of Representatives, Rep. Dan Howell, withdrew himself from the bill Monday. His office says it is effectively “a dead bill,” and it will not come before the House for a vote this legislative session.
Under current Tennessee law, a person convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison must serve at least 51 years before becoming eligible for parole.
The bill that was making its way through the Tennessee House would have reduced that to just 25 years.
“A loved one doesn’t get a chance to come back in 25 years. We don’t get our loved ones back in 25 years, or 51 years, or ever,” said Joan Berry.
Berry is a fierce advocate for victims’ rights and the rights of their families.
Her daughter, Johnia Berry, was murdered in 2004. Berry founded the organization HOPE for Victims in 2007 as a way to give a voice to the voiceless.
Berry argues this bill leaves families of many victims in Tennessee helpless, knowing they would have to fight to keep their loved one’s killer behind bars even harder.
“It’s a constant battle. It just keeps you upset and on edge. You are constantly reliving it every day. There is no closure,” said Berry.
Rep. Howell released the following statement to News Channel 11 on why he withdrew himself as the sponsor of the bill:
“Our criminal justice system must be balanced with accountability and a path for redemption. After careful consideration and counsel with district attorneys, judges, victims and other stakeholders across our state, I have decided not to move forward with House Bill 1532. I don’t think the victims of violent crimes will be best served by this legislation. I’m very encouraged by proposals to rewrite and reform existing ranges in our criminal sentencing code so that they more accurately reflect time actually served. This will create more efficiency and transparency in sentencing and improve public safety overall.”Rep. Dan Howell (R) Cleveland, Tenn.
The bill touted financial savings for the state by reducing prison sentences for violent offenders. A fiscal report shows it would save an estimated 2.4 million dollars a year. According to the Department of Corrections, the average operating cost per offender, per day for the calendar year 2021 was $80.46.
In 2021, the Senate version of this bill passed with only four ‘no’ votes. State Senator Jon Lundberg of Bristol, Tennessee was one of them.
“We talk about criminal rights. Equally, victims have rights as well,” said Sen. Lundberg. “When you are talking about first-degree murder, you’re talking about people who are clearly a threat to our society. I don’t think life in prison was meant to be 25 years. 51, I think, is a much better definition of that.”
Lundberg said he hopes the bill will never become law.
Members of HOPE for Victims have protested, written letters to lawmakers and spent countless hours making phone calls. Berry says she is relieved to know the bill has hit a major roadblock.
“We have been working very hard. It’s a shame we have to do that. Whatever we have to do, we will,” said Berry.
It is unclear at this time if the bill will be taken up by another sponsor in another session of Tennessee’s General Assembly.