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.
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.
prisoners serve less time than those in most states,”
by Brian Haas, published at Tennessean.com.
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