Prison sentences discussed at legislative hearing

Legislators were told Monday that longer sentences for convicted criminals don’t necessarily reduce crime, reports The Tennessean.

“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 professor 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 the administration of 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. Although Haslam and lawmakers haven’t put forward any specific plans, advocates and experts are worried any proposal to change when prisoners are released could lead to people unnecessarily spending more time in prison.

Slobogin was one of six people to testify at a Senate Judiciary Committee meeting after the state discussed the findings of a sentencing task force. Although Department of Safety and Homeland Security Commissioner Bill Gibbons read through the 16 recommendations, the majority of discussion focused on an idea to set a minimum amount of time served on a sentence.

Gibbons and others who testified acknowledged that under the current judicial 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; for a 10-year sentence, the RED date could be three years.

However, any number of factors could move up or delay that RED date, Gibbons noted, as inmates can earn credit for good behavior or taking classes, and generally get credit for any time served leading to their trial. The state is considering a number of solutions to try and provide some predictability as to when an inmate might actually get out of prison.