For anyone who cares about the rule of law, civil liberties, and individual freedom, the Kyle Rittenhouse trial should shake you to your core.
The Kenosha County District Attorney’s Office attempted to sacrifice 18-year-old Rittenhouse to the protesters determined to see Rittenhouse punished while allowing a “trial by Twitter” to shape the charges and sentencing.
Rittenhouse’s constitutional rights were upheld because Wisconsin courts, like Tennessee courts, still allow a balance of power between the judge and the prosecutor.
Circuit Court Judge Bruce Schroeder fiercely protected the rule of law and Rittenhouse’s constitutional rights by checking the prosecutor each time he attempted to insert politics into the criminal proceedings and attempted to prejudice the jury. Judge Schroeder held his ground despite extreme hostility directed by those advancing the aggressive narrative of pundits and others outside the courtroom.
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The intent behind ‘truth in sentencing’
Prosecutorial discretion is a critical function of our criminal justice system. While most prosecutors do not abuse their power, susceptibility to political agendas and the pressure of mob mentality make their discretion fallible. The same is true for judges and juries. That’s why the balance of power inside the courtroom must be protected for a fair outcome.
Here in Tennessee, prosecutors are advancing what some call “truth in sentencing.” On its face, truth in sentencing tackles the ambiguity of actual prison time.
However, a closer look at what they seem to propose is the dusting off of tired 1990s mandatory minimum regimes that cost billions of dollars while ballooning prison populations and offering little benefit to public safety. Particularly true when mandatory minimums extend to nonviolent offenses and remove judicial discretion over sentencing, like in the federal system.
Most states have rolled back these regimes or are desperately trying to.
Unfortunately, the feds still love their mandatory minimums. Everyone subject to a mandatory minimum, as charged by the prosecutor, must serve 85% of their sentence before being eligible for parole and neither the judge nor corrections have much say in the matter. To conservatives, this should be a red flag.
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The situation in Tennessee
In July, Tennessee enacted a law to require mandatory sentencing for certain sex crimes and violent offenses, but maintained judicial discretion. It remains unclear whether the prosecutors will go “full-fed” by seeking to strip judges of the power to assess other crimes and utilize alternatives to incarceration (probation, drug courts, diversion.)
Had Rittenhouse been found guilty of the charges brought by the prosecution in a state with “truth and sentencing,” he could have been sentenced to serve 85% of up to a 134 years of mandatory prison sentence before reaching parole eligibility. This does not account for the first-degree intentional homicide charge carrying a mandatory life sentence.
Currently in Tennessee, when someone is convicted, the judge retains discretion over the sentence, particularly upon conviction via trial. The individual is then remanded into the custody of the Tennessee Department of Corrections, and depending upon the felony charge, the person will have the opportunity to earn credit through successful completion of various TDOC programming that could adjust the time served.
We must protect this balance of power amongst the prosecution and judges in Tennessee. Prosecutors cannot be allowed to choose defendants’ charges, their sentences, and take away any ability they might have to utilize corrections to earn a sentence reduction. This type of truth in sentencing tips the current balance and makes the prosecutor the most powerful actor within the criminal justice system.
Tennessee’s commitment to the rule of law, civil liberties and freedom is evidenced by our efforts to achieve a balance of power in our criminal justice system. Let’s keep it that way.
Julie Warren is the Tennessee state director and deputy director of Right on Crime, a national initiative of the Texas Public Policy Foundation supporting conservative solutions for reducing crime, restoring victims, reforming offenders, and lowering taxpayer costs.