A Brief Look Into Tennessee’s “Truth In Sentencing” Act
The Truth in Sentencing Act, or Senate Bill 2248, is the latest legislation to come through Tennessee Sentencing law. The bill increases the number of offenses that require penitentiary-bound offenders to serve 85-100% of their sentence with either no eligibility or extremely limited eligibility for parole. The bill also severely limits the credit system the penitentiary system has grown most used to when it comes to the crimes listed, abolishes probation for some, and eliminates the possibility for parole for others.
The Act passed into law on April 20, 2022, with eighty-six senators supporting the bill, and it went into effect on July 1, 2022.
Governor Lee expressed concern over the bill and reluctantly allowed it to pass into law without his signature. About this he said, “Widespread evidence suggests that this policy will result in more victims, higher recidivism, increased crime, and prison overcrowding, all with an increased cost to taxpayers.”
This article will walk through the many years of Sentencing Law in Tennessee and discuss the major changes that the Truth in Sentencing Act has had on Tennessee’s sentencing law. Second, it will incorporate the main points on either side of the debate over the success of this legislation.
CRIMINAL PUNISHMENT THROUGH THE YEARS
- Corporal Punishment
When TN became a state in 1796, the common law method of punishing criminals still largely consisted of “whipping, branding, and placing the offender in ‘stocks’ on the village green.”. Tennessee legislation focused largely on definitions of punishment instead of the definitions of offenses.
Additionally, most offenses were punishable by death. It would be a long time before Tennessee heard a call to abolish capital punishment for simple offenses like stealing a horse.
- The Penitentiary System
It was thirty years before the Tennessee legislature finally enacted the Penitentiary system into its criminal law, but it didn’t come without its fair share of opponents.
An essential part of the penitentiary system is its roots in the Bible and its religious connotations. The first penitentiary was completed by January of 1831 and the intent was for prisoners to be reformed by doing penitence for their crimes in the penitentiary with its Bibles, work, silence, and solitary confinement.
In its infancy, the penitentiary system did not allow for probation or parole and made its inmates serve 100% of their sentence before allowing release. However, much like modern-day problems, the penitentiary soon had trouble dealing with the overpopulation that heavily burdened its cells, and early release provisions were soon turned to as a source of relief. In 1835 the General Assembly enacted the first good conduct credit system and in 1839, 10% of the prison population received an early release. Unfortunately, this would not fix the gargantuan problem of overcrowding that soon permeated every penitentiary across the nation. In 1868, the state again faced the beast of overcrowding, and it wasn’t until 1870 that the legislature finally enacted “statutory good conduct time to be calculated by the superintendent of the penitentiary.”
The penitentiary system was actually largely opposed because of the cost of building the prisons as well as the cost of maintaining as many prisoners as they had come into the system. However, this concern was quickly rectified once opponents became aware of the profits made off prison labor. From then on, prison labor profits were used to build and maintain newly built penitentiaries.
- The Indeterminate Sentence Law of 1913
In the beginning stages of sentencing law in Tennessee, the governor was the only source of early release. With the rise in the prison population and the need to relieve the stress put on the penitentiary system, the legislature looked for other avenues to grant prisoners early release. In 1913, they added a parole system to the new Indeterminate Sentence Law. This new law would “retain the existing criminal code and existing statutory penalties” but allowed “the minimum penalty for each crime to be considered the parole eligibility date for all offenders.” At first, parole was evaluated by the prison commissioners, however, in 1937 the legislature created the parole board and the possibility of pardons. Within the parole board hierarchy are parole officers whose functions are to monitor the “conduct, behavior, and progress of the parolees.”
It wasn’t until 1931 that the legislature enacted the first statute permitting probation in response to the Tennessee Supreme Court decision, Spencer v. State, in which the court rejected this practice. Now, instead of serving a sentence in prison, the trial judge had the authority to suspend the sentence and place the defendant on supervision while serving his or her sentence.
- Class X
By 1979, the prison system was corrupt beyond recognition with inmates often buying their way out of prison. This resulted in the indictment of many government officials and eventually the early removal of Governor Blanton who was “commuting sentences with reckless abandon.” The Class X Felony Law of 1979 was enacted by the legislature at the request of Governor Alexander.
This new law increased the punishment of select felonies and imposed mandatory minimum sentences for crimes such as robbery, rape, murder, and specific drug offenses. If you were convicted of any of these Class X crimes, you faced an uphill battle against the criminal justice system. Plea bargaining was restricted, bail following conviction was eliminated, early release of Class X offenders was prohibited, and eligibility for parole could not come until the offender had served 40% of their sentence with no reduction for good conduct credits of any sort.
It was in the years that followed the enactment of Class X that the effects were wholly realized. While likely well-intentioned, Class X only added steam to the massive overpopulation problem already clouding the penitentiary system.
- Sentencing Reform Act of 1982
This law effectively repealed the Indeterminate Sentencing Law and made all punishments determinate. Likely the most significant change incorporated into this law was the shift in sentencing authority from the jury to the judge. Now, the judge was able to consider the defendant’s criminal history before imposing a sentence.
This piece of legislation substantially changed Tennessee’s sentencing structure while also taking many aspects of the Class X Felony law and spreading them to other felonies not previously addressed. This law now fixed parole eligibility at 30% without any good conduct credits applied for any crime.
Finally, the overcrowding problem came to a head in 1983 and forced the legislature to devote time and resources to fixing the problem. However, instead of ripping the problem out at its roots, the legislature again used Band-Aids to cover up the problem for a future legislature to deal with.
In 1985, the legislature proposed two solutions to alleviate the overpopulation problem: (1) the legislature restored sentencing credits and (2) the General Assembly gave the governor a “safety valve” to use whenever he determined that an overcrowding emergency existed. This safety valve allowed for further reduction in parole eligibility when necessary.
- The Tennessee Sentencing Reform Act of 1989
The Tennessee Sentencing Reform Act of 1989 was monumental in updating and revising Tennessee’s criminal code. Many offenses were consolidated sentencing statutes amended. Felonies were now classified according to their seriousness (A, B, C, D, etc.), and sentencing ranges were created to categorize an offender’s likely sentence depending on how many prior criminal convictions were on their record. Additionally, the judge retained the power to increase or decrease the sentence depending on aggravating or mitigating circumstances present in the individual’s case. In addition, parole eligibility changed as well. Now depending on the number of prior convictions, eligibility will be fixed between 20% and 60%.
TRUTH IN SENTENCING
Every change to our sentencing law has been made with the governors’ leadership, until now. The Truth in Sentencing Act was enacted by legislators alone with no help, approval, or denial from the Governor.
The enactment of the Truth in Sentencing Act was meant to be the legislature’s statement showing how tough on crime they can be. There are now close to thirty offenses for which an offender must serve at least 85% of the received sentence with often no possibility for a reduction.
Strong opposition to the bill, which was passed without the Governor’s signature, argues that the legislation could lead to another cataclysmic explosion in the prison population while the system is already battling understaffing within prison walls. Opponents of the bill also point to safety issues that could arise from the removal of “early release incentives designed for rehabilitation.” Included in the opposition is one of America’s oldest conservative advocacy groups, The American Conservative Union. They warn that “reducing incentives runs counter to anti-recidivism programs.”
Now to serve 100% of the sentence, undiminished by service credits are the following offenses:
- Attempted first-degree murder.
- Second-degree murder
- Vehicular homicide resulting from the driver’s intoxication.
- Aggravated vehicular homicide.
- Especially aggravated kidnapping.
- Especially aggravated robbery.
- Especially aggravated burglary.
Now to serve 100% with release eligibility at 85% of the sentence served with credits are the following offenses:
- Aggravated assault, if the offense involved the use of a deadly weapon.
- Reckless aggravated assault, if the offense involved the use of a deadly weapon.
- Aggravated assault, if the offense involved strangulation or attempted strangulation.
- Aggravated assault, if the offense results in serious bodily injury or death of another.
- Aggravated assault against a first responder or nurse, if the offense involved the use of a deadly weapon.
- Aggravated assault against a first responder or nurse, if the offense involved strangulation or attempted strangulation
- Aggravated assault against a first responder or nurse, if the offense results in serious bodily injury.
- Aggravated assault, if the offense results in the death of the first responder or nurse.
- Voluntary manslaughter
- Vehicular homicide creating a substantial risk of death or serious bodily injury; the conduct constitutes the offense of drag racing, or within a posted construction zone where the person killed was a Department of Transportation employee or a highway construction worker.
- Reckless homicide
- Aggravated kidnapping
- involuntary labor servitude
- trafficking persons for forced labor or services.
- Aggravated robbery
- Aggravated burglary
- Aggravated arson
- Possessing a firearm or antique firearm during the commission or attempt to commit a dangerous felony.
- Manufacture, delivery, or sale of a controlled substance after two or more convictions
- Criminally negligent homicide.
Criminal punishment started out with capital punishment as its only option, now it has morphed into a variety of different punishments depending on a variety of factors such as the offender’s criminal history, the seriousness of the crime, and what is in the best interest of society. Can one say that our sentencing law in Tennessee has become more humane over the years? There are some that would argue yes because we do not inflict capital punishment on offenders that steal a horse, but others would argue that just because the shocking nature of the punishment has dwindled does not mean that the severity of the punishment has. The harshness of the sentence is still very much alive—it has only shifted forms.
 David Raybin, The Truth About Truth in Sentencing: Tennessee’s Experience, TN Bar Ass. Jan. 1, 2023, https://www.tba.org/?pg=Articles&blAction=showEntry&blogEntry=85872
 Melissa Brown, Tennessee General Assembly passes controversial ‘truth in sentencing’ legislation, Apr. 21, 2022, https://www.tennessean.com/story/news/politics/2022/04/21/tennessee-general-assembly-passes-controversial-truth-sentencing-legislation/7400115001/.