TN Debates Prison Terms; Expert Says Long Sentences Are Not “Panacea”


Sending someone to prison longer is no indication he or she will be less likely to commit a crime once released, and longer sentences don’t dissuade others from committing that crime, experts told Tennessee legislators yesterday, The Tennessean reports. In fact, states that have reduced their prison populations the most have also seen a drop in the crime rate. “Long sentences are not the panacea that many people think they are. They do not reduce crime, they do not increase public safety, and they cost the state a whole lot of money,” said Prof. Christopher Slobogin, director of the Criminal Justice Program at Vanderbilt University Law School. “I think the common intuition, and it’s a natural one, is ‘Hey, if we want to protect the public let’s put them in as long as possible. But in fact the data show, and I think theory suggests, it doesn’t make sense to do that.”

The debate comes as Gov. Bill Haslam and lawmakers look at reforming how offenders are sentenced, when they may be eligible to leave prison and what they need to do once they are released. The state is discussing the findings of a sentencing task force. Department of Safety and Homeland Security Commissioner Bill Gibbons and others who testified acknowledged that under the current system it’s very hard to predict when someone will be released from prison. There is the length of a sentence, and what’s known as a “release eligibility date,” also called a RED date. For many offenses, that RED date comes at 30 percent of a sentence. One proposal is to set the minimum mandatory sentence at the average amount of time offenders charged with similar crimes stay in prison. Slobogin and others said that’s a bad idea: The average length of time served is always longer than an inmate’s RED date, said Alex Friedmann of the Human Rights Defense Center and editor of Prison Legal News.

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