Tennessee 4th-lowest in prison terms

Tennessee 4th-lowest in prison terms

September 9th, 2012 by The Tennessean in News

The Hamilton County Jail

Photo by WRCB-TV Channel 3 /Times Free Press.

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HOW PRISON STAYS VARY

State Average time served % change since 1990

Michigan 4.3 years +79% (highest)

Alabama 2.9 years +28%

Georgia 3.2 years +75%

Tennessee 1.9 years -6%

S.Dakota 1.3 years -24% (lowest)

Source: Pew Center on the States

Joe Wauford was about an hour away from being released from the Charles B. Bass Correctional Complex after spending half of the last decade in prison.

"I'm a 14-time felon, so I'm blessed they didn't put me away," said Wauford, 44.

Tennessee's prisoners have had some of the shortest stays in prison over the past two decades when compared with other states, according to a recent report by the Pew Center on the States.

The report, which measured average length of stay for people sent to prison in 35 states, found that Tennessee had the fourth-lowest average prison stays in the nation in 2009, behind only South Dakota, Illinois and Kentucky.

Prisoners here could expect an average prison stay of 1.9 years, 6 percent less than they would in 1990 and far lower than the national average for 2009, which was just under three years.

Average prison stays in Georgia and Alabama were substantially longer -- 3.2 years and 2.9 years, respectively. In fact, Georgia had one of the nation's largest increases in average time served since 1990, according to Pew.

In Tennessee, Charles Calhoun had served less than three years of a 12-year robbery sentence in August 2011 when he was back on the streets and confronting pizza delivery man Kent Lindley. He threw Lindley on the ground in Nashville and took $22 from him. Calhoun went back to prison and is serving eight years for the attack.

"I got lucky; I wasn't killed," Lindley said. "What can I say? Someone was on the streets who shouldn't have been."

Prison sentences are affected by the complicated interplay between legislators, who write the penalties and what the minimum percentage of time is that a prisoner has to serve before being eligible for parole; judges, who have discretion in sentencing offenders to prison; and the state's parole officials, who determine whether an offender can leave prison early.

"The fact that we're one of the lowest in the country doesn't surprise me," said Davidson County District Attorney General Torry Johnson. "The legislature has put into effect a lot of different alternative punishments and presumptions regarding people who should get probation -- things that many states have been slow to adopt. Definitely one of the goals of that was to not only reduce but to better control prison populations."

State officials point out that while offenders spend less time in prison today than 20 years ago for property and drug crimes, there was a 41 percent increase in prison time for violent crimes.

"An assumption may be that the state as a whole wants to ensure that people are not being incarcerated just because they have a drug problem but that they are getting the necessary treatment they need in community programs shown to be effective and less expensive than prison," said Dorinda Carter, spokeswoman for the Tennessee Department of Correction. "As an agency, we want the more expensive beds reserved for those who pose the greatest threat to public safety and need to be in a secure environment, which is indicative of the increases in time served for violent offenses."

But the study already has begun a conversation about whether Tennessee should be stricter.

"I think it's certainly something we need to address and find out why it's happening," said state Sen. Mae Beavers, R-Mount Juliet, who is chairwoman of the state's Senate Judiciary Committee. "I would certainly like to be tougher on crime."

Potential savings

Ryan King, research director for Pew, said that while much has been made of the rise in the nation's prison population, little research had previously been done on how much time offenders spend behind bars. Overall, the study found that time served across the nation increased in violent, property and drug crimes from 1990 to 2009.

King said their research shows opportunities for states to start rethinking their incarceration policies. Had all the nation's offenders spent as much time in prison in 2009 as they did in 1990, for example, King said states would have saved $10 billion in incarceration costs. The study did not break out Tennessee's potential savings.

"There's a lot of opportunity for states to kind of revisit their policies around nonviolent offenders that I think can both control corrections costs while holding offenders accountable," King said. "Our takeaway is the violent and career criminals need to be behind bars for a long time ... but a large number of lower-risk, nonviolent offenders could serve less time without increasing crime."

Tennessee had an increase in the amount of time violent felons stay in prison during those two decades, but it still lagged almost a year and a half behind the national average. Time served for property crimes dropped almost by half, and drug crimes declined by about 9 percent.

Johnson said Tennessee began revising sentencing guidelines in the 1980s to combat prison crowding. Those reforms included lowering the minimum time prisoners must serve when convicted, meaning some offenders serve as little as 20 percent of their sentence, though in recent years the legislature has increased those percentages for violent crimes.

"For a lot of people who don't commit really serious violent felonies, or major drug offenses -- for everybody else, you've got to work pretty hard to get into prison," he said. "The core is designed to give you multiple opportunities to straighten yourself out before you get sent to prison."

That notion was applauded by Jeff Henry, executive director of the Tennessee Public Defenders Conference.

"When you get over the initial shock of saying, 'Tennessee is easy on crime,' you realize it doesn't really say that," he said. "It really makes me have good feelings about what we're doing in Tennessee here. We realized that lengthy incarceration is not always the best deterrence to crimes."

But Beavers said it is time to reassess Tennessee's sentencing guidelines.

"I get complaints all the time about people who the public doesn't feel like they've gotten as much time as they deserved for a violent crime," she said.

A second chance

Wauford, the felon, said he didn't think Tennessee was particularly harsh on him, considering his felony record stretches back to 1994. In 2003, he was convicted of his most recent offense, aggravated burglary and theft, and sentenced to eight years.

He was out in two. In 2009, he violated his parole and was sent back to prison.

Recently, Wauford stood outside the first set of prison gates leading to freedom, all his possessions in a clear, plastic bag. He was excited, nervous and hungry for some fresh fruit after years of prison grub.

Most of all, he said he was wiser -- his sister, mother and father died while he was in prison. He said he wants to stay out of prison so he can be there for his daughter and granddaughter.

"I'm a fool. My daughter grew up without me, but I'm blessed," he said. "I've got a second chance."

Contact Brian Haas at 615-726-8968 or bhaas@tennessean.com.