Tennessee Debates Costs Of Sentencing Alternatives


A college student is kidnapped, brutalized, and murdered. A mother changing her baby’s diaper finds a gun pointing in her face. A man is bludgeoned with a baseball bat in a mall parking lot. The Tennessean says that in each case, the person charged with the offense was a convict out on probation or parole – a situation Tennessee prosecutors and law enforcement leaders say is all too common because of how the state sentences its convicted criminals. “These people don’t deserve to walk the streets,” said Nashville Metro Police Chief Ronal Serpas. “Look, we’re not saying lock them all up and throw away the key. Let’s take the most dangerous ones and put them away.” Tennessee has the second-highest violent crime rate in the nation, according to FBI crime statistics. Serpas and fellow members of the Tennessee Public Safety Coalition, a statewide association of law enforcement officials and prosecutors, say at least part of the reason why lies in the state’s sentencing practices.

Longer jail terms come with higher costs. The legislature estimates it would cost $160 million to implement the modest sentencing changes the coalition is pushing. Just eliminating the possibility of parole for first-time convictions for armed robbery could cost $73.7 million. If Tennessee locked up every person who broke the law for the duration of their sentences, there wouldn’t be enough jails or beds in this or in the surrounding states to house everyone. One out of every 40 Tennessee adults is either imprisoned or out on probation or parole, according to a survey by the Pew Center on the States. Tougher sentencing guidelines don’t necessarily mean more people behind bars. New York changed its sentencing guidelines and has seen a sharp drop not only in its violent crime rate, but in the number of people incarcerated. Other states, including Texas, Arkansas, Michigan, Alabama and Mississippi have rushed to follow the New York model. “We really need to do a better job of sorting our offenders by risk,” said Adam Gelb, director of the Pew Center on the States’ Public Safety Performance Project. “This is less and less an issue of being tough on crime or soft on crime and more an issue of giving the taxpayers a better return on their dollars.”

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