Tennessee Supreme Court Examines Future of Life Sentences for Juveniles

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The Tennessee Supreme Court is considering a case that could pave the way for nearly 200 people to be released from prison for crimes they committed as juveniles, reports WKMS. Tennessee’s mandatory minimum sentences gained national attention when celebrities like Kim Kardashian West and Rihanna took to social media to call for the release of Cyntoia Brown-Long in 2017. Brown-Long had been sentenced to life in prison for shooting a man she says was reaching for a gun after paying her for sex when she was 16. Brown-Long’s case didn’t end up changing state law, nor Supreme Court precedent. But if the court rules that Tennessee’s sentencing laws are unconstitutional in this latest case, it could provide a path out of prison for all of the other Tennesseans sentenced to life as juveniles. Calls for juvenile sentencing reform have gained momentum in recent years, as scientific research has uncovered differences between teen and adult brains.

185 people are currently serving life sentences in Tennessee for crimes they were convicted of as teens. And, like Brown-Long and Booker, a disproportionate number of them are people of color. Out of the 132 juveniles who have been sentenced to life imprisonment since July 1, 1995, nearly 80 percent were Black, according a brief submitted to the court by the Tennessee Conference of the NAACP. In contrast, Black people make up about 40 percent of prisoners and just 17 percent of the overall state population. State Sen. Raumesh Akbari has introduced a bill that would allow people sentenced to life as juveniles to ask for parole after serving 20 or 30 years, instead of 51. The bill went to committee in 2019 but never received a final vote. Gov. Bill Lee’s Criminal Justice Investment Task Force also recommended that the state rewrite its sentencing code during the 2021 legislative session, citing an increase in the prison population due to longer sentences.

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