Adam Tamburin – Nashville Tennessean 2.18.2021
Tennessee’s criminal justice system increasingly relies on life sentences, a new analysis shows, a phenomenon straining the state’s prisons and budget.
The population of so-called “lifers” in Tennessee prisons has grown by 87% since 1970, according to the report released Wednesday by Washington D.C. nonprofit The Sentencing Project. An expert on Tennessee’s sentencing laws said explosive growth of the population of so-called “lifers” is just the beginning of an impending trend.
Swelling prison rosters have done little to reduce crime, the report found, using language echoing Gov. Bill Lee’s Criminal Justice Investment Task Force.
More than half of the people serving life sentences in Tennessee prisons are Black, the report found, which the authors say disproportionately harms minority communities as a whole.
Lee’s task force released its own report in 2019, showing draconian sentencing disproportionately affects Black residents and does not curb high crime rates.
Sentencing Project director Amy Fettig called the latest round of data “a wake-up call for the nation to roll back the outdated, excessive and racially motivated punishments of the past.”
In Tennessee, 2,831 people are in prison for long sentences including, life, life without parole and sentences of 50 years or more.
The report found 54% of those people were Black. Tennessee’s population is only 17% Black, according to U.S. Census data.
Nearly 10% of the people serving a life sentence in Tennessee were minors at the time of their crime, accentuating another trend advocates want to reverse.
Tennessee became a lightning rod in the debate over minors sentenced to life in prison after Cyntoia Brown’s case got attention from A-list celebrities.
Brown was 16 in 2004 when she shot 43-year-old real estate agent Johnny Allen in the back of the head while he was lying in bed beside her. She was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison — state law dictated that she would not be eligible for parole for at least 51 years.
Former Gov. Bill Haslam gave Brown clemency shortly before leaving office in 2019. He called on lawmakers to consider reforming juvenile sentencing laws, acknowledging many “other Cyntoias” in state custody likely deserved mercy too.
The national report called on Tennessee and other states to reduce the use of life sentences and increase opportunities to re-sentence and release people, particularly offenders who were sentenced as minors.
“Extreme punishment has become a hallmark of the American criminal justice system with no evidence that such an approach produces better public safety outcomes,” said Ashley Nellis, the lead researcher and author of the report.
Tennessee law doles out particularly harsh life sentences
Tennessee life sentences are particularly harsh.
Before 1995, there were two options: life without parole and life sentences that allowed for the possibility of parole after 25 years. In 1995, state law was changed so that the option of life with parole required people to serve at least 51 years before they could be released.
That unusually high floor created two options in Tennessee that essentially amounted to life without parole.
“There’s no opportunity for redemption, there’s no opportunity for rehabilitation,” said Nashville defense attorney David Raybin, who served on the state sentencing commission from 1986-1995. “You’re never gonna get out.”
People sentenced under the 1995 law are now “stacking up” in crowded prisons, Raybin said.
Crowded prisons have been an albatross on the Tennessee state budget. The state prison system gets more than $1 billion annually. As more people are sentenced to life under the 1995 law, Raybin said, the cost would only get higher.
Raybin recommended shifting the law back to the 25-year floor for life sentences, while still allowing a separate option for life without parole sentence.
The Lee administration has been vocal about the need for criminal justice reforms, although some reform advocates criticize the governor for not being aggressive enough on the issue.
Lee’s criminal justice task force recommended an overhaul of sentencing laws and other policies to shrink prison rosters. An initial plan called for sentencing reform in 2021. On Thursday, Lee spokesperson Laine Arnold said said sentencing reform was “not on the roster currently.”
Arnold said the governor would announce a suite of legislative priorities next week. She pointed to pending legislation that revises parole rules and funds re-entry services.
Reach Adam Tamburin at 615-726-5986.