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Tennessee lawmakers have asked judges to find alternative sentences for low-level offenders, not only because of the pandemic, but also because of the limited capacity of those facilities. 

Bill Lee ran for governor of Tennessee on criminal justice reform, sentencing, prison reform, re-entry, and intake, and became governor. His Executive Order No. 6 ordered the Tennessee Criminal Justice Investment Task  Force (CJITF) to investigate Tennessee justice, budget conditions, safety in prisons, and the money spent annually on corrections.

In the 1970s, states used incarceration as a primary policy, sentencing individuals to prison for increasingly longer terms. In the 1990s and 2000s, prison populations and corrections budgets continued to grow. 

The CJITF made recommendations after completing their comprehensive review and found that Tennessee sentences a large number of individuals convicted of non-violent offenses for non-person offenses. That has caused a strain on the budget because sentence lengths increased and paroles decreased. 

It recommended that the state should change policies to focus on dedicating state prison beds for violent and dangerous individuals, and should shift sentencing to community corrections and supervision for non-violent offenses. Judges have taken this into account for individuals going before the courts who have not yet served time for the crimes they have been charged with. 

However, the State of Tennessee and the Governor of Tennessee have yet to give current inmates this same measure of justice – inmates that have served months and years for similar crimes are not extended the same grace as offenders going before the court for the first time. 

Inmates that have been incarcerated for a period of time have found this unjust. Why should I have to do all of my time, they ask,  while others charged with the same offenses get off without doing even one day?

I was charged with a non-violent, non-person crime, but my sentence was 36 years. I would have gotten less time had I actually committed a violent crime. 

The report also states that the Tennessee sentencing structure matches up the felony class of an offense with an individual’s criminal history and it relies on an individual’s prior criminal history. In other words, an individual with prior history of offense may receive a longer sentence.

Many have taken to online forums, TV news and newspapers, and even to street protests to demand reform for this sentencing structure, and no changes have yet been made. Bill Lee ran for office and campaigned with justice reform at the forefront of his agenda, but in his 2020 state address, he declared that “first and foremost, we must be tough on crime.”

 
Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. The Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned. The work is lightly edited but has not been otherwise fact-checked.

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Tony Beasley

Tony Beasley is a writer incarcerated in Only, Tenn.