A recent study by the Pew Charitable Trusts Public Safety Performance Project revealed that Tennessee criminals serve the fourth lowest amount of time in prison compared to other states. The report, which was meant to measure the average length of stay for people sent to prison in 35 states, found that Tennessee’s short stays were behind only those in South Dakota, Illinois and Kentucky.
Those incarcerated in Tennessee could expect an average prison term of 1.9 years, 6 percent less than what they could have expected in 1990 and much lower than the national average of just under three years. Georgia saw average prison stays of 3.2 years while neighboring Alabama had 2.9.
The reason for the reduced time in Tennessee is a complicated one as prison sentences are affected by multiple factors, including legislators, who write the rules, judges, who have discretion in sentencing offenders to prison, and the state’s parole board, who decides whether an offender can leave prison early.
Tennessee began revising sentencing guidelines in the 1980s to combat prison overcrowding. Those reforms included lowering the minimum time prisoners must serve when convicted, meaning some offenders serve as little as 20 percent of their sentence. Recently, under pressure to appear tough on crime, legislators have increased those percentages for violent crimes. The legislature also enacted an array of alternative punishments and presumptions regarding people who should get probation, something other states have been slow to adopt.
The worry about the attention caused by the study is that legislators will feel the need to spring into action, creating harsh sentences for the sake of being harsh. There are indications the study already has begun a conversation about whether Tennessee should be stricter. State Senator Mae Beaver said that the issue is “certainly something we need to address and find out why it’s happening.” Beavers, the chairwoman of the Senate’s Judiciary Committee said, “I would certainly like to be tougher on crime.”
The fact is, when you look into the numbers and get over the initial shock of thinking the state is going easy on criminals, you realize that isn’t what the study actually demonstrates. What actually happened was that several decades ago legislators realized that lengthy incarceration is not always the best deterrence to crime, something backed up by the study. A key finding of the research is that not all crime is equal, but prison times seldom take that into consideration. Increased prison time and cost were up across the country almost identically for both violent and non-violent offenders. But the study also reveals that releasing non-violent offenders earlier did not result in lowered public safety, even when non-violent offenders committed similar non-violent crimes.
Though some may try to seek an easy solution and rush to have criminals spend more time in jail, it won’t solve the larger problem of crime in the state and will only end up costing us all huge amounts of money to keep them there. Spending large amounts of taxpayer money to keep non-violent offenders in prison shows a poor return on investment and has negligible impact on public safety. A sad anecdote that should give those pushing the state to be tougher on crime comes out of California where it was recently announced that the state spends more money on its prisons than on colleges and universities.
The full Pew report is available online here.
(Lee Davis is a Chattanooga attorney who can be reached at email@example.com or at 266-0605.)