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'Where is the justice? Where is the truth? '

Hank Hayes • Oct 3, 2018 at 7:30 PM

NASHVILLE — A plea for truth in sentencing has been made to the Tennessee House Criminal Justice Committee.

During a daylong special meeting to consider criminal justice reform, state Rep. Bud Hulsey and Debbie Locke of Kingsport appeared before the panel to make that plea.

Hulsey, R-Kingsport, had filed a bill in the last legislative session that would prohibit an inmate from using sentencing credits until the inmate has served the minimum sentence. Hulsey had amended the bill to include only violent felons, and that move lowered its fiscal impact to more than $30 million from more than $112 million in incarceration expenses.

Hulsey introduced the bill after James Hamm, convicted in the June 2014 drunken hit-and-run that killed Kingsport businessman and Hulsey’s friend Mike Locke, was denied parole for two years last year. The bill was sent to a Summer Study Committee.

In May 2016, Hamm received a 14-year prison sentence, but his parole eligibility came up after he used sentencing credits for good behavior.

“We’re a republic in this country and we say we live by the rule of law … but we’ve been ignoring that pretty regular,” Hulsey told the committee. “This bill I ran said, ‘You have to serve the minimum (sentence)’ … of what the statute demands before you can cash in on it. … Truth in sentencing is all I’m about today. We need to do a top-down restructuring. I believe that.”

The state is releasing almost 1,200 violent felons a year before they have served the minimum sentence, Hulsey noted.

“If (the law) says you have to serve 30 percent before you cash in on your good (behavior) time, then you serve 30 percent,” Hulsey insisted.

Mike Locke was posting a political sign on Fort Henry Drive for Hulsey’s state House campaign when he was killed.

Debbie Locke, Mike Locke’s widow, tearfully read a long statement about her experience with the criminal justice system.

“I want to make sure that no other victim or victim’s families of the violent crime feels this hurt and injustice,” she told the committee.

Hamm, Debbie Locke said, was out on bond from a previous criminal offense and drove to a package store to get more liquor before hitting her husband.

“He staggered back to his vehicle, started it and jumped to the curb,” she testified. “ … A gentleman came out of the restaurant next door and tried to stop him in the parking lot while others were calling the police but he kept going.”

Hamm ran two red lights on Fort Henry Drive before the fatal incident, Debbie Locke told the committee.

“He managed to make it about five miles down the road before he was apprehended passed out and slumped over the wheel,” she said of Hamm. “His first words were, ‘Don’t take me to jail.’ … This was no accident. His blood alcohol level was .35. … You need to feel what I felt. You need to stand in my shoes.”

In June 2017, Debbie Locke said she was notified by letter of Hamm’s parole hearing.

“I was in disbelief, hurt and more angry than ever,” she said. “How can this be? … No one could believe this was happening: not me, not my family, friends or the community. … The law said he would be out of our lives for 30 percent of the sentence. … In my mind, the 14 years was not enough. Where is the justice? Where is the truth? This model prisoner stuff is not real life and has proved nothing to this victim’s family. … The night (Hamm) killed my husband, he was given two days credit (for good behavior).”

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