03/30/20: Meaningful life-sentence reform, especially for young offenders, needed

Updated: Apr 9

Meaningful life-sentence reform, especially for young offenders, needed


https://www.tennessean.com/story/opinion/2020/03/30/meaningful-life-sentence-reform-especially-young-offenders-needed/2929179001/


Rahim Buford, Ashlee Sellers, Jeannie Alexander, Janet Wolf, Dawn Deaner and Josh Spickler, Guest columnistsPublished 5:00 a.m. CT March 30, 2020


Tennessee's 51-year life sentence makes no sense, especially when applied to children and those designated “youthful offenders” by the state.


Rahim Buford, Unheard Voices Outreach; Ashlee Sellers, Free Hearts; Jeannie Alexander, No Exceptions; the Rev. Janet Wolf, Children’s Defense Fund; Dawn Deaner, Choosing Justice Initiative; Josh Spickler, Just City.


Tennessee’s incarceration rate is 10% above the national average and continues to grow. Parole grants have fallen by 50% since 2011. Most alarming, while admissions to Tennessee prisons are actually down by 14%, time served is up 23%, and the overall custody population is up by 12%. In short, our prison population is high and rising, making Tennessee an outlier among the vast majority of states. 

To fully understand this increased incarceration rate, which is not likely to fall any time soon, one must go back to the mid 1990s, when the Clinton administration passed the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994. As part of the bill, states were offered grant incentives to drastically increase sentences for people convicted of violent crimes. Tennessee and 26 other states accepted the grant. That funding ended long ago, leaving Tennessee to foot the bill for its dramatically increased prison population.   

35 Photos Cyntoia Brown over the years

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Life sentence doubled in 1995

One of our most drastic sentencing changes came in 1995, when Tennessee doubled its life sentence, from a baseline of 25 years -- the current national average -- to a draconian 51 years. With this extreme increase, a “life” sentence in Tennessee essentially came to mean the same thing as life without parole. It meant death in prison and no second chances for anyone convicted of first-degree murder.   


Tennessee’s 51-year life sentence is unique, and the General Assembly is finally discussing serious reform. From a rational and moral perspective, people are realizing that this sentence makes no sense, especially when applied to children and those designated “youthful offenders,” prisoners between the ages of 18 and 25, by the Department of Correction. The parts of the brain responsible for impulse control and decision-making are not fully developed until roughly age 25, and existing data demonstrate that children and youthful offenders age out of crime, especially violent crime. Those paroled for first-degree murder have the lowest rate of recidivism and are the least likely to reoffend.  

According to TDOC records, Tennessee has 1,259 individuals serving a 51-year life sentence, and over half of them were 25 or younger when charged. Of these youth, 72% are black. In a state where 17% of the population is black, the disproportionate impact of this harsh sentence on black youth is both obvious and unacceptable.  

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Young offenders are capable of transformation and redemption

While there is no doubt that children and youthful offenders can cause lasting harm, we also know that a violent act committed at a young age does not make a person incapable of transformation and redemption.  

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Legislators elsewhere are also convinced reviewing sentences after 15 to 20 years strikes an appropriate balance for life sentences imposed upon children. West Virginia and Oregon recently enacted 15-year parole eligibility thresholds for children serving life sentences as adults, and Washington, D.C., adopted West Virginia’s 15-year law as its model. Virginia just passed a 20-year juvenile life sentence bill, and similar legislation pending in Maryland is being amended from 20 years down to 15 years.  

Former federal judge Kevin Sharp, of Nashville, listens next to Kim Kardashian during a discussion about criminal justice reform and clemency on Wednesday, Sept. 5, 2018. (Photo: The White House)

There is growing consensus that our life sentence must be reformed, but we must be careful not to end meaningful reform before it begins. Last year, the Tennessee legislature considered a bill that would have reduced the 51-year life sentence back to parole eligibility after 25 years, and saved hundreds of millions of dollars. This year, one bill (HB2415/SB2213) would allow juveniles sentenced to life to be considered for parole after 15 years. Another bill (HB310/SB69) would do the same, but only after 30 years. We do not consider 30 years to be meaningful reform, especially because it will apply to only 80 of the 1,207 individuals serving 51-year life sentences.   


None of the aforementioned bills guarantee release. Nor do they make the difficult task of being granted parole on a life sentence any easier. Available data for people in Tennessee serving life sentences make it clear that the Parole Board rarely grants release after the first hearing, or often even the second. Thus, parole eligibility after 30 years means a person sentenced to life will likely serve 35 or even more years before being granted parole. Actuarial data relied on by legislators in 1995 in enacting the 51-year life sentence indicated that most individuals would not survive beyond 40 years. Thus, establishing a 30-year floor realistically may not offer a meaningful opportunity for a second chance at freedom.  

Meaningful life-sentence reform means going back to where we were prior to 1995, with parole eligibility after 25 years at least for juveniles and youthful offenders. Holding them accountable in age-appropriate ways that leave room for rehabilitation and the hope for a second chance at life outside prison is the right decision. This sort of parole eligibility would align with the national trend in juvenile sentencing reform, and with the national average of 25 years for a life sentence. This accounts for what we know about adolescent brain development and its impact on behavior; it balances the need for public safety and respects the rights of victims and their families; and most importantly it is in the best interests of Tennessee’s youth. After 25 years of getting this wrong, it’s time to make sure we get this right. 

Rahim Buford, Unheard Voices Outreach; Ashlee Sellers, Free Hearts; Jeannie Alexander, No Exceptions; the Rev. Janet Wolf, Children’s Defense Fund; Dawn Deaner, Choosing Justice Initiative; Josh Spickler, Just City.



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