51 Years: The New Life Without Parole

Guest blog by Parrhesia

Tennessee is drawing wide attention for its policies on the death penalty. Less well known is how barbaric our sentencing laws are in general. For instance in Tennessee, all penalties for First Degree Murder, even for juveniles sentenced as adults, are equivalent to a death sentence, whether a social death sentence or a physical one. In Tennessee, the only options are the death penalty, life without parole, or a life sentence requiring service of 51 to 60 calendar years. 51 years is impossible to do in practice. No one in Tennessee on record has ever served longer than about 45 years. Therefore, there is no possibility of release with a life sentence in Tennessee.

In 1989 a bill was passed which gave the criminal sentencing structure in Tennessee an overhaul. The 1989 Sentencing Reform Act established a rigid sentencing structure with ranges based on prior criminal history and a maximum sentence of 60 years for those repeatedly convicted of the most serious crimes. Even someone who committed the worst crimes could still be eligible for parole after a reasonably lengthy sentence served day for day, usually around 25 years, if they were first time offenders, the logic being that first time offenders when they are young may still be capable of total reform, and the parole board could decide the matter.

All was well after the 1989 Sentencing Reform Act. Legislators were confident they had modeled a system which would carry them into the future, especially with the war on drugs ramping up and the luring scent of federal money in the air.
In 1993 another bill was passed which required at least 25 years of a life sentence to be served before parole eligibility and for juries to have the option of life without parole for those hard cases where the death sentence is not in play.

And yet, that wasn’t far enough.

In 1995 in Tennessee, the legislature and the business interests walked in lock step to pass a “Truth In Sentencing” law. From that point forward, men and women who commit certain crimes on an arbitrarily composed list, regardless of past criminal history or any other mitigating factors, no longer have any chance of consideration for parole and at least 85% of the sentence must be served regardless of how many sentence credits (good behavior credits) the inmate receives. Some of the legislators who first discussed the bill on the floor spoke of the law as a “three strikes” law. They can be heard on the tape recordings of the sessions, available at the state archives located in downtown Nashville. In Tennessee, we threw out the last two strikes and decided it was best to impose the maximum possible sentence, even for first time offenders and juveniles, a major change in policy regarding the hope of rehabilitating an offender or salvaging his or her life in any way.

Our legislature made the policy decision to throw human beings away like garbage in a land fill called the prison system.

I am a piece of that garbage. When my jury deliberated on my case after a week long trial, they considered the charge of First Degree Murder and lesser included offenses such as Second Degree and Voluntary Manslaughter. Each of the lesser crimes carried a lesser possible sentence. My lawyers argued that my state of mind was so impaired that the legal definition of the crime chosen should be reduced down from First Degree Murder. At one point the jury asked the judge how much time I would have to serve before being eligible for parole if given life in prison versus life without parole (the death penalty was not an option). The response: he could not tell them that information.

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