Natalie Allison Nashville Tennessean 4.27.2021
It’s a measure that would offer a life-altering second chance for inmates serving life in prison to prove they have been rehabilitated. Currently, a 1995 state law prohibits life-sentence inmates from having a parole eligibility hearing until after they have served 51 years.
Despite first-degree murder in the state having three possible sentences — death, life in prison without parole and life in prison with the possibility of parole — the 51-year waiting period for a release hearing is effectively a full life sentence, bipartisan advocates argue.
The Tennessee Senate on Thursday passed legislation that would reduce that period to 25 years.
“Can you imagine if all hope was taken away from you?” Sen. Kerry Roberts, R-Springfield, asked colleagues from the floor on Thursday, explaining that the bill — which was approved 26-4 — would not guarantee anyone’s early release, but merely allow them the opportunity to be considered.
Potential release on parole is still a decision that must be made in each case by the state Board of Parole, which frequently denies inmates release until after multiple hearings.
The proposed reform is not a new idea, but rather the same life-sentence parole eligibility timeline in place in Tennessee until the mid-1990s.
While Gov. Bill Lee’s office has pushed action on other criminal justice reform measures, this is not one he has been vocal about.
But Republicans in the Senate this year have widely supported the life sentence reform legislation, a bill advocates have pushed for six years and intend to pass in the House next year. Hopefully, they say, with the governor’s support.
“I can’t help but believe that they’re taking notice of it now,” Jeannie Alexander, a former chaplain at Riverbend Maximum Security Institution, said of Lee’s office. “This is significant.”
Alexander, director of No Exceptions Prison Collective, has been at the forefront of the group of lawyers, faith leaders and rehabilitated offenders who have worked for years at convincing Tennessee lawmakers to return the state’s life sentence law to what it once was.
GOP sponsors touting the legislation have focused on the fact that the Tennessee General Assembly’s decision in the mid-1990s to drastically increase the parole eligibility time was the direct result of tough-on-crime sentencing reform authored by Democrats.
David Raybin, a criminal and civil rights attorney who has long represented the Nashville Fraternal Order of Police, called the 1995 legislation — which he testified against at the time — a “draconian statute.”
“You can’t live 51 years in prison,” said Raybin, who drafted the life sentence bill that has been re-introduced in the legislature for years now. “People die in prison, and the life expectancy of people who are incarcerated is much lower than people who are not.”
The Tennessee District Attorneys General Conference, which frequently testifies in legislative committees with concerns about criminal justice reform bills, did not speak out against the legislation.
Jacob Davis, an Honors Student Spending His Life in Prison from a Murder at 18Jacob Davis was one of the top students in the Lincoln County High School Class of 1998.
Growing up in the McBurg community outside Fayetteville, Davis lived in the country and worked on nearby farms and in his family’s large garden. He hunted and fished.
He had a high grade-point average and a scholarship to attend Mississippi State University that fall.
He had never been in trouble at school.
Two days before graduation, an 18-year-old Davis showed up at the high school with a rifle and shot Nick Creson after an argument over an ex-girlfriend. Creson, who was also 18, died soon after.
A year later, Davis was sentenced to life in prison with a chance to be released on parole. Under current law, the opportunity won’t come until 2049 at the earliest, when Davis is 70 years old.
When Davis learned by phone about the bill’s success in the Senate on Thursday, he broke down in tears.
“I think a person can never really deserve mercy,” Davis said by phone from the Turney Center Industrial Complex in Hickman County. “It’s either something that you receive or you don’t. When you’ve done something as serious as I have, you can’t ever do enough to make up for that. You can’t ever bring the life back.
A 2011 study by Stanford University found that 860 life-sentence offenders released on parole since 1995 had a recidivism rate of just 1%, compared to a 48% rate in the state’s overall prison population.
Rahim Buford, Also 18 When charged with murder, served 26 years
Rahim Buford was also 18 when he was charged with first-degree murder. While committing an armed robbery at an East Nashville fast food restaurant, Buford shot at the floor and the bullet ricocheted, striking the clerk, 25-year-old Barry Latham. Latham died two days later.
Buford didn’t waste time pleading guilty to the crime and for a series of other robberies he had committed around the same time. Within a year of the murder, Buford was sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole.
It was 1990, which meant Buford would be eligible for release in 25 years — a fact clearly stated in the April 6 edition of The Tennessean that year, in a brief about Buford’s plea and sentence.
Had he been convicted of the crime five years later, like Davis and many others, Buford would have been sentenced to more than 50 years in prison before being eligible for parole.
Instead, Buford was eligible for release in 2013, and after three appearances before the Board of Parole, was granted it in 2015. He’ll spend the rest of his life on parole.
After he was released, he quickly completed his degree at American Baptist College, which offered him a scholarship. In his six years out in the world, Buford has had “an opportunity to demonstrate what contrition looks like in practice.”
“I am not special,” Buford said. “I just got lucky, because the law was what it was at the time. That’s it.”
Returning to the state’s previous parole eligibility rules for first-degree murder will give others like him in prison the same chance he had, Buford said.
A Chance to Start Over Rehabilitated
When Davis first received his life sentence in 1999, he met other young men in prison who had earned the same fate through the court system. Anyone much older than them sentenced to life with the possibility of parole would likely never actually have a shot at release before dying.
“All these young people, the consensus among them was we’ve received this message from the state that our life no longer matters,” Davis said. “It doesn’t matter what we do from here on.”
If the life sentence reform bill passes the House next year and is signed into law by Lee, Davis will soon have a shot to make his case for release before the state’s Board of Parole, a seven-member panel with the authority to grant and set conditions for early supervised release.
He wants to complete a college education — something he’ll try to do through Belmont University in the meantime — and dedicate his life to helping other people somehow.
His father is aging, and Davis wants to spend time fishing with him. But he knows he’ll likely never live in Lincoln County again, where the wounds are deep and where one family will never be able to get their son back.
Davis imagines he’ll settle down in Nashville, where he has developed relationships and connections with people volunteering in the prison system. He knows he can’t merely make up for lost time from his youth, and acknowledges he likely won’t get married or have a family of his own once he’s out.
“I’ve tried to follow a path of reconciliation while I’m in here,” Davis said. “And even if I never get out, I’ll continue to try to do that.
“But also if I get out, I think that will present me with other opportunities to live my life in such a way that I can address some of the failings of my past with people that I’ve hurt, if that’s possible.”
Support for Prison Reform Becoming Increasingly Bipartisan
From inside prison, Davis as much as anyone has sensed a shift in how people in power are now thinking about the sentencing and what it means to offer an offender a second chance.
Davis has never forgotten the time he met Rep. Mark White. He was assigned to Riverbend Maximum Security Prison when White, R-Memphis, and others from his Lipscomb University master’s program visited a class Davis was taking at the facility.
It was a simple encounter. Davis tries to hold back tears as he recalls White approaching him to talk, and how much it meant that White and others would listen to his story.
“After meeting face to face that way, I think that those people were able to see the humanity in us,” Davis said. “They were able to see the struggle, the remorse, they were able to see a human being sitting across from them.”
White was also among a handful of state legislators praising former Gov. Bill Haslam’s decision to grant clemency to Cyntoia Brown, a woman assigned life in prison with a minimum 51-year for a crime she committed at 16.
Brown shot and killed a man in self-defense, she said. Haslam commuted her life sentence to 15 years.
Other Republican governors in the past decade have begun championing various aspects of criminal justice reform, an initiative that typically saves the state money — in the case of this bill, around $2 million a year — and that some conservatives suggest is also in line with Christian principles of second chances for those who want them.
Alexander said the process in Tennessee has been gradual, with more Republican members getting on board with the proposal every year. It first began with two Nashville Democrats, Sen. Jeff Yarbro and Rep. Mike Stewart, introducing the life sentence bill.
In the years since, the sponsors have included a rotating list of legislators across the state from both political parties, including now. This year’s primary sponsors are Sen. Janice Bowling, a rural Republican from Tullahoma, and Rep. London Lamar, a Memphis Democrat.
Buford’s pitch to lawmakers: For a life sentence with parole to actually mean something, they have to actually have a shot at release.
“If he or she has demonstrated a transformed life, why wouldn’t we give that person a second chance?” he said. “We are not the worst thing we have done in our lives.”