Tennessee Sees Shorter Prison Sentences; Former Prisoners Still Not Ready

Heavy-burden

Both the Nashville Tennessean and the Memphis Commercial Appeal ran a story yesterday about the average length of stay for inmates in Tennessee prisons. The story relies heavily on a Pew Center on the States report that measured the average length of stay for people sent to prison in 35 states. The story turns on the finding that Tennessee inmates served less time than all but three other states in the study, serving an average of 1.9 years.

The story continues by noting that this average is lower than it has been in quite some time. Importantly, “state officials” point out that despite this shortening of average time served, sentences for violent crimes have risen 41% over that same time.

What is NOT mentioned in the article and will likely be lost in any analysis that follows, are the crushing consequences of the convictions from which these sentences arose. There is much more to a criminal conviction than the sentence imposed by the court.

 Society’s punishment for wrongdoing continues long after the gavel drops and the jailer unlocks the doors.

Whether it be lifetime assignment to a registry, loss of voting rights, crushing financial debt or the permanent stigma of a conviction, climbing back into the mainstream is, more often than not, impossible for the 95% of all prisoners who will eventually be released back into their communities.

Consider the following:

 

  •  A recent Brennan Center for Justice study of criminal justice debt in 15 states found that 15 of 15 states impose fees that attach upon conviction; 15 of 15 states impose parole, probation or other supervision fees; and 15 of 15 states have laws authorizing the imposition of jail or prison fees.
  • 15-27% of prisoners expect to go to homeless shelters after release according to the Second Chance Act of 2004.
  • A California study found that 60 to 80% of prisoners are unemployed one year after release.
  • There are at least 180 statutes in Tennessee that limit or restrict some right or privilege upon criminal conviction.

We applaud Tennessee’s economic approach to prison sentences. However, no matter how little time they’ve served, most of these former prisoners are wholly unprepared for reintegration into our communities. We know without a doubt that unsheltered, uneducated, unemployed and financially burdened former prisoners return to prison at alarming rates.

And we know that money well spent on re-entry programs like New York’s Center for Employment Opportunities (C.E.O.) reduces recidivism.

A revolving door that simply spins faster is hardly a victory in the battle for justice in our community.

 

Read JustCity for more stories of justice from Memphis and beyond.

Josh Spickler is an attorney and the Director of the Defender's Resource Network at the Shelby County Public Defender's Office in Memphis, Tennessee.

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