DOJ: Tennessee’s prison population is increasing faster than most states; lawyers point to new sentencing laws

DOJ: Tennessee's prison population is increasing faster than most states; lawyers point to new sentencing laws

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) – Tennessee’s prison population is growing faster than the majority of states, according to a new report from the U.S. Department of Justice.

The report found from the end of 2021-2022, Tennessee saw a nearly 8% increase in incarcerated people with 1,740 more individuals in state prisons.

The only states with a higher percent increase were Coloardo, Montana, and Mississippi.

“These are real numbers and they’re very alarming,” said Nashville attorney David Raybin.

Raybin said a big reason for this increase is news laws passed by the GOP-controlled Statehouse.

“Over the last three or four years the legislature has exponentially increased the length of sentences, and now that’s catching up with us,” he said.

Enacted July 2022, the so-called “Truth in Sentencing” bill made it so violent offenders need to serve their full sentence without the possibility of parole or early release.

At the time, bill-sponsor TN House Speaker Rep. Cameron Sexton (R-Crossville) said it’s a tough on crime law that will keep Tennesseeans safer.

“The worst thing you can do is tell a family they’re going to get 10 years and you see them on the street in three years or less, which is happening right now,” Sexton said in 2022.

However, Raybin said what Sexton saw as a problem with the criminal justice system is how it intended to work.

“I was served on the Sentencing Commission. We created the length of the sentences with the understanding that people would be paroled,” Raybin said. “We’ve done away with parole, so you have sentences that are now triple or quadruple what they intended to be when the sentence lengths were first created in our laws.”

According to the most recent felon population data from the Tennessee Department of Correction, there were 24,510 incarcerated felons at the end of December 2022. As of October 2023, there were 488 more.

Choosing Justice Initiative founder Dawn Deaner said this trend will keep going up, considering the 2022 law made sentences longer while also removing ways for prisoners to be released early.

“New admissions are going up. The number of people being released is going down,” Deaner said.

During the same period when the prison population increased, the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation’s annual crime report found the murder rate in Tennessee went down by more than 14% from 2021-2022.

Neither Deaner nor Raybin saw this as a signal the law eliminating parole was the cause of the reduction in murder rates. Instead, they said the increase in prison population would be a burden on taxpayers.

“Are we safer? Do we feel safer? Do people feel safer, because I don’t think they do,” Deaner said.

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