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.
The State of Tennessee passed a law that constrained the jury in my trial from giving me another chance through parole, and then ruled that it could not explain the law precisely when it was most important that they understand. The jury saw the tragedy of my case, knew the severe irreparable damage I had done, and had the responsibility of deciding what justice meant. But they were restrained severely, and apparently they were not responsible enough to know what the legislature had done.
Was it a secret?
The average person does not closely follow each law passed. If they know anything about it, most people would guess that 25 years is the length of time one serves before parole consideration in the worst cases. But in Tennessee, because of the “Truth In Sentencing” law passed in 1995, I will have to serve at least 51 years before being eligible for release with max sentence credits. Without the behavioral credits, it could be as long as 60 years before I am eligible for release.
I was an eighteen year old child with no prior criminal record when I made a tragic mistake. I live with the heavy burden of guilt and regret for taking a young man’s life. I would change it if I could. I want to do anything I can to help those I have hurt, to live my life now with the purpose of helping instead of hurting.
I am NOT now worthless as a human being. I can contribute. I have tremendous talents and skills to be used for good. My family could certainly use my contribution. I want only the chance to come into the light of day and give back, but in Tennessee I am already dead. I suffered a social death, one legally justified in the U.S. since the 13th Amendment did not ban slavery, but forced it to evolve.
Is this waste of life and talent justified? A few people got together and made an arbitrary policy decision in 1995 with the promise of federal money which has long since dried up, and now I must serve at least 51 years before being dragged out into the sunlight blinking and coughing again, an old man of 69 since I was barely 18 when I was arrested for taking a life. 51 years is more than twice the length of time that someone formerly served for the same crime. The cost to the Tennessee taxpayers is staggering.
It costs about 27 thousand dollars to house a prisoner in Tennessee as of 2013. If he is over 55, the cost doubles. 51 years at that cost, without the inevitable inflation, is about 1.5 million dollars of taxpayer money, more than twice what it would have cost before the 1995 law was passed. Over six hundred men and women have been given this sentence so far in Tennessee. The math becomes scary very quickly. Soon we will see the kinds of problems that other states like Louisiana are facing with their aging population.
Why are we spending so much money? People like me with First Degree Murder convictions are actually least likely to re-offend after release, especially first-time offenders. No one needs to be protected from me. I have consistently demonstrated highly functional behavior for over a decade in the system. I have no criminal history and considerable education. Even though the jury had the dread responsibility of looking into the face of tragedy and deciding what to do for everyone’s good, they were not given the option to consider the value of my life, whether it was worth saving for the sake of the positive contributions I might still make.
51 years is the new life without parole. I know that if the law does not change, I will die in prison even though the jury in my community wanted me to have another chance. I spent over a decade in a CCA prison where my body earned the company a large slice of that $27,000 per year of taxpayer money. This is the bewildering solution offered by our legislature: throw them away like garbage in the best most expensive landfills.
When will we wake up and reconsider how we use the most precious natural resource: human beings?