The conservative approach to criminal justice:
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Prosecutors & Sentencing Enhancements

| September 19, 2017

There are prosecutors out there who love sentencing enhancements, and I get it.  Enhancements make a prosecutor’s life easier, because they can make it easier to obtain a guilty plea.  There is also the belief that a longer sentence ensures greater public safety.

Thus, the question must be raised, does an enhancement actually serve the interest of public safety, so as to justify the added expense of incarcerating individuals for a longer period of time? I believe there are certainly occasions where an enhancement is appropriate. For example, if an individual (actually) employs a deadly weapon in the commission of a crime, then the facts may necessitate an enhancement. Also for instance, drug dealers who target children should likely be subject to a sentencing enhancement.

However, many of the enhancement laws on the books are not worth the tax payer expense from a public safety standpoint. For example, Tennessee will enhance the sentence of an individual who is pulled over along the highway and found to be in possession of cocaine if the location of the traffic is within 1000 feet of a school, library, or park. Attempts to reduce the school zone to 500 feet (which is in line with most other states) to avoid these scenarios were opposed by prosecutors, even though it would save tax payers about $ 3,057,400 a year. More importantly, the measure was opposed despite the lack of quantifiable public safety benefits associated with arbitrarily enhancing the sentence of a population of drug offenders that were not the target of the drug free school zone to begin with.

Tennessee is also reconsidering its “Crooks with Guns” law that mandates at least a 3-year sentencing enhancement against individuals who commit a nonviolent crime while in possession of a firearm. On its face it makes sense.  In application, the enhancement is far too broad. This enhancement can be applied to an individual who legally possesses a firearm, while committing a nonviolent crime if the prosecutor can find some way to argue it might have been employed.

The Tennessee Attorney Generals’ Conference has testified to their unconditional love for this enhancement because the bill allows them to put folks away longer for the firearm than on the predicate offense. The Attorney Generals’ Conference representative testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee that the enhancement allows them to incarcerate for a mandatory 3-years for an individual who [legally] possesses a firearm in their vehicle while selling .5 oz of marijuana, which is otherwise a misdemeanor.

The presence of the vehicle is all that is required to trigger the enhancement. This means that an individual selling marijuana out of his vehicle while his firearm, for which he has a permit and is otherwise permitted to carry, will serves a mandatory 3-year sentence. This is longer than someone convicted of sexual battery. And again, there is also the significant expense to the taxpayer that must be considered. Incarcerating this individual will cost Tennesseans more than .

My plea to lawmakers reviewing the sentencing enhancements is to ask whose interest are ultimately served by the application of these draconian policies. If the answer is not the citizens of Tennessee, certain enhancements must be repealed.

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JULIE WARREN is a graduate of Marshall University and of Regent University School of Law. She also attended Georgetown Law Center as a visiting student. While in law school, she clerked on the Senate Judiciary Committee. Julie served four years at the U.S. Department of Justice in Washington, D.C. After a few years in private practice as a civil defense litigator, Julie returned to public service and began her work in the Office of the West Virginia Attorney General where she primarily served as an appellate advocate for the State of West Virginia and as legislative counsel to the Attorney General.

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