Victims rights group calls for tougher sentencing laws

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JOHNSON CITY, TN (WJHL) – A victims rights group is pushing Tennessee lawmakers to create mandatory minimum sentences for people convicted of violent crimes.

Under current law, members of Hope for Victims argue there is no truth in sentencing. The parents of murdered Tri-Cities native Johnia Berry are among those who want Tennessee to follow Virginia’s lead and put violent offenders behind bars for much longer.

Joan Berry says just because a judge announces a lengthy prison sentence in court doesn’t mean the defendant serves all of that time. In fact, he or she usually serves significantly less.

“Sometimes they’ll say, ‘Well, they get 50 years or 80 years’ or whatever the sentence may be, but little do some of those family members know that they only pull maybe a third of that time,” Berry said. “We don’t feel like as family members of the victim that this is really justice for our victim.”

The Governor’s Task Force on Sentencing and Recidivism previously recommended the state “Institute truth in sentencing for felony convictions that result in incarceration through the establishment of a clear minimum period of incarceration that is conveyed to all interested parties at the time of sentencing.”

Senator-Elect Jon Lundberg is a member of that task force. He said he’s “very supportive” of reform and said he will push the issue in the upcoming session. However, he expects reform to carry a “huge” price tag. He says lawmakers took some “baby steps” last session.

“It will probably take several years to implement,” he said. “This is probably a good time, because the state’s financial position is very strong.”

The Commonwealth of Virginia changed its sentencing laws more than 20 years ago. A 2015 Senate Finance Committee report revealed taxpayer cost per inmate has dropped in the years since and violent crime rates are among the lowest in the nation.

“Virginia has the third lowest violent crime rate and the second lowest recidivism rate in the nation,” the report said.

The Berry family understands it will take some time to fully change the law.

“It will be small steps, because they won’t be able to do just a blanket reform,” Mike Berry said. “It will take years, but if they don’t get started, they’ll never get there.”

Hope for Victims intends to push lawmakers to make those changes in the coming weeks and months.

“We just feel that the victim has less rights than the criminal,” Joan Berry said. “You find out that the justice system is not what you thought it was. If you’re on our side looking in and you’ve lost someone, that’s not justice.”

Copyright WJHL 2016. All rights reserved.

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