By Tony Jones
MEMPHIS, TN — In just its name alone, the “community terrorism” legislation proposed this spring by D-93 Rep. G.A. Hardaway seems to hit the nail on the head in bringing attention to the level of violent crime in Memphis. Numbered HB 1320 and HB 1321, an amended version of the bi-partisan bill will be reintroduced in the 2023 General Assembly.
Though aimed at the “cowards that murder innocent bystanders,” the legislator cautions the bills were never crafted to provide another “lock ‘em up, throw away the key” type policy such as the recent bi-partisan “truth in sentencing” law that dominated the recent county wide election.
Hardaway’s warning comes in the wake of a new joint committee formed by Gov. Bill Lee in response to the two nearly unmentionable crimes that gripped Memphis earlier this month; the kidnapping and murder of teacher Eliza Fletcher and the nearly unbelievable night 19-year-old Ezekiel Kelly shut down the city as he committed an extended serial drive by shooting spree, snuffing out the life of four random victims and wounding three others, all while livestreaming his actions on Facebook
“This is community terrorism, and it has to be checked,” Hardaway told media when introducing HB 1320 & 21 this spring, but if real change is the goal, the system has to correct its own influence on violent crime.
Given the 2021 Victims Service Award from Marsy’s Law for Tennessee for his efforts to try and bring the law to the state, Hardaway says the reach for change cannot be one sided. (Marsy’s Law is named after University of California Santa Barbara student Marsy Ann Nicholas, who was stalked and murdered by her boyfriend in 1983. It expanded the rights of victim’s families, including restricting early release, and more.)
“The Department of Corrections is a joke,” he says. “If you do little or nothing to give offenders the type of behavior modification programs that will make them different from how they went in, no matter how long they serve, if you don’t do your part, you turn out a better criminal and worse individual citizen than went into the system, or at the juvenile court.”
The publicly stated differences of opinion by the family of carjack murder victim Rev. Autura Eason-Williams on the level of punishment that should be given teen assailants perfectly illustrates the conundrum at hand. He would like to see the county area governments band together for a coordinated improvement effort that would steer more offenders away from “the dark economy to provide for themselves and their families.”
The New York Times summarized the current state of the city. “Memphis has long struggled with chronic poverty and crime and is often ranked among the nation’s most violent cities. Its troubles have intensified in recent years. In 2021, the city had a record number of killings, with 346. In 2022, the violent crime rate compared with last year’s has only marginally improved, according to police statistics.”
Hardaway advocates for “blended sentencing” and finds hope in the outcome of the August election placing Steve Mulroy in the District Attorney’s office and Judge Tarik Sugarmon as head of the juvenile court.
“One of Judge Sugarmon’s priorities is to evaluate the juvenile court’s programs to see which are the ones that the juveniles are responsive to so we can improve the outcomes for these individuals.”
Finally, though law, he says, “the so-called Truth In Sentencing bill is useless. It’s supporters say ‘they’re there so they’ll learn. That’s ignorant. You have prison riots, fights, rapes, if your logic made any sense then those individuals that are in there for a lifetime would be the best-behaved individuals, but they aren’t, are they?” he argues, “Because they have nothing to lose.” He would like to see the county area governments band together for a coordinated improvement effort in incarceration that would steer more offenders away from “the dark economy.”
Gov. Lee did not sign the “Truth In Sentencing” law, but has stated that “soft on crime plea deals,” are part of the problem and has appointed a joint commission to address the issue. Lt. Gov. Randy McNally and House Speaker Cameron Sexton head the effort.
Sexton called it the “first step of many to fix a broken system,” and would support legislation that would allow juveniles accused of committing certain violent crimes to be automatically tried as adults. “We want to help nonviolent offenders not become violent. But once you cross that threshold, all bets are off.”
McNally has stated, “Too many violent criminals are getting out of prison far too early and committing far too many violent additional offenses. We cannot continue to sacrifice the safety of our streets on the altar of rehabilitation.”