Police officers work at the scene of the arrest of 19-year-old Ezekiel Kelly, who authorities say went on a shooting rampage across Memphis, Tennessee.
CNN  — 

Calls for tougher prison sentences are growing in Memphis, Tennessee, as word spreads the suspects in two violent attacks there this month had been released from prison before serving their full sentences for prior convictions.

But experts told CNN research shows harsher penalties are not an effective deterrent to violent crime.

Instead, they said, rehabilitation programs to help violent or habitual offenders reintegrate into society are essential for public safety and preventing recidivism, which the National Institute of Justice measures by criminal acts resulting in rearrest, reconviction or return to prison within three years after the person’s release.

Suspects convicted in previous violent crimes released early

Cleotha Henderson, the man suspected of abducting and killing 34-year-old teacher Eliza Fletcher in Memphis last Friday, was previously convicted of aggravated kidnapping and was released in 2020, after serving 20 years of his 24-year sentence.

Ezekiel Kelly, the 19-year-old who authorities said went on a shooting rampage across Memphis on Wednesday, killing four people and injuring three others, was previously charged with criminal attempted first-degree murder but pleaded guilty in April 2021 to a lesser charge of aggravated assault. Kelly was sentenced to three years in prison but served only 11 months, and was released in March, Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland said.

“If Mr. Kelly served his full three-year sentence, he would still be in prison today, and four of our fellow citizens would still be alive,” Strickland said, echoing concerns about the criminal justice system and repeat offenders following the two attacks.

“The problem is not the Memphis police department. The problem is the judicial system that will not punish,” Strickland added.

The mayor emphasized a Tennessee sentencing law, which went into effect in May, could have prevented the attacks this month and said it is a “must” in stopping violent crime.

The controversial “Truth in Sentencing” law requires those convicted of violent crimes, such as murder, to serve their full sentence without the possibility of parole or early release. Those who are convicted of lesser crimes such as aggravated assault are required to serve at least 85% of their sentence, according to the law.

Challenges of reducing recidivism

“The reality is that some people are going to come back out (of prison) and continue engaging in criminal behavior,” said Jeffrey Coots, director of the From Punishment to Public Health Initiative based at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

There are two major, unavoidable challenges to lowering recidivism rates, Coots explained.

One, most offenders will eventually be released and return to society, which is why it is crucial for the justice system to offer rehabilitation services while they are in prison. And two, each state has a certain number of prisoners who will be rearrested within a year of their release, and the trend continues in each following year, he said.

Coots said targeted programs to prepare offenders for reentry into communities, focused on helping them plan for employment, housing, access health care services and ensuring they have social relationships, are effective strategies to reduce recidivism.

Another effective strategy is cognitive behavioral therapy, which helps people become aware of their thought processes and change criminal behavior.

“Particularly when somebody’s in prison for a long time, the rehabilitation services you have available there, employment opportunities like work release or even within the facility, the types of activities the person is engaged in on a daily basis, are going to instill prosocial behaviors while they are inside so that when they come outside, that is part of their demeanor,” he said.

“The work we do to build those pathways back to them is the important work to be done,” Coots said.

‘A two-prong approach’

A report released by the US Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Statistics last year tracked state recidivism rates across 24 states over a 10-year period for state prisoners who were released in 2008. It found 66% of prisoners released in 2008 were arrested within three years and 82% were arrested within 10 years.

The report also stated 77% of those who were released from prison in 2008 after serving time for a violent offense were less likely to be arrested for any offense within 10 years than the prisoners who were convicted of other types of offenses.

The most recent data provided by the Tennessee Department of Correction showed the state had a 47% recidivism rate over a three-year period for violent offenders who were released in 2014.

It’s difficult to measure how Tennessee’s recidivism rate compares to other states due to the lack of available data, according to Thaddeus Johnson, a senior fellow at the Council on Criminal Justice and a former Memphis police officer.

“There’s really no research out there that says if you serve your full sentence, or if you serve part of your sentence, that it has any statistically significant effect on recidivism,” Johnson said.

He said the issue is more complex than trying to solve recidivism and repeat offending by keeping individuals in prison for longer periods of time, which can also strain the system with complications such as overcrowding, older prison populations and higher costs to keep prisoners incarcerated.

In many cases, Johnson said, prisoners are released back into disenfranchised communities struggling with poverty and a lack of health care facilities, mental health services and employment opportunities.

“If we want to place a dent in public safety, let’s take a two-prong approach,” Johnson urged. “Let’s make sure people serve their due time but that it’s just and fair, and we target the right people. But we also need to give these people a fair shake at life and fair rehabilitation.”

Tennessee reestablished the Division of Rehabilitative Services in 2004 and established a Governor’s Task Force on Sentencing and Recidivism in 2014. The state’s department of correction “offers or promotes rehabilitation and reentry services such as educational and vocational programming, young adult offending interventions, and drug treatment,” according to Johnson.

While many of the state’s efforts target various factors that contribute to offending, Johnson said, none of them appear to specifically target violent or habitual offending.

A separate report released in 2021 by the Bureau of Justice Statistics included a study of state prison sentences in 44 states and found those convicted of murder who were released in 2018 served an average of 17.5 years in prison and nearly 96% of violent offenders served 10 to 20 years of their full given sentence.

“For murderers, when you’re getting past five or 10 years, they’re serving more time,” Johnson said. “How much is enough and will those couple of years or months really make a difference? I’m going to say no.”