Facts and Policy Reforms for Tennessee
Like most states, Tennessee’s prison population has exploded in recent decades.
Like most states, Tennessee’s prison population has exploded in recent decades. Since 1980, the population has grown four-fold, with more than 30,000 people in Tennessee prisons as of 2017. While the state imprisonment rate nationwide dropped by 7 percent between 2000 and 2016, Tennessee’s imprisonment rate rose by 9 percent over the same period.
Between 2003 and 2017, the number of people serving time for drug offenses in Tennessee increased by 44 percent, and 26 percent of admissions to prison in 2017 were for drug offenses. But it’s not just drug law enforcement that is driving the growth in Tennessee’s incarcerated population. Harsh laws that increase sentencing ranges, limit parole opportunities, and trigger mandatory prison sentences are all part of the picture of mass incarceration in Tennessee. In 2017, returns to prison for violating the conditions of community supervision, such as parole, accounted for two in five prison admissions.
While Tennessee experienced a recent drop in prison admissions, the prison population continues to grow due to both a rise in the length of imprisonment and a slight decrease in annual releases from prison. The average sentence length rose by 14 percent between 2007 and 2017. The increase in the amount of time served has left the state with a graying population behind bars: Since 2007, the number of people in prison age 50 or older has risen by 64 percent.
Unsurprisingly, Tennessee’s mass incarceration crisis has had an enormous impact on people of color, especially Black people. Though Black men constituted just 15 percent of the state’s population in 2017, they made up 43 percent of the prison population. Ending mass incarceration is a critical – although insufficient – step toward addressing racial disparities in Tennessee’s criminal justice system.
Women are also being sent to prison in Tennessee at alarming rates. Over the past 10 years, the number of women in Tennessee’s prisons has grown at a rate that is over five times that of men.
But it doesn’t have to be this way.
Tennessee can dramatically reduce its prison and jail populations by implementing just a few sensible reforms:
- Amending the criminal code to reduce sentencing ranges for drug offenses, burglary, property offenses, robbery, public order offenses, and assault.
- Reforming Tennessee’s “85 percent” rule to tailor people’s eligibility for parole based on their specific circumstances.
- Investing in community-based alternatives to out-of-home juvenile detention centers.
- Automatically restoring the voting rights of formerly incarcerated people as soon as they leave prison.
- Continuing to fund the TN Together initiative, and supporting similar diversion programs for people in need of treatment for substance use disorders, as well as people with mental health needs.
- Eliminating money bail.
If Tennessee followed these and other reforms outlined in this Smart Justice 50-State Blueprint, by 2025, 14,411 fewer people would be incarcerated in the state’s prison system, saving the state $957,644,298 that could be spent on schools, roads, and other resources that would strengthen communities.
For more information, along with detailed breakdowns of Tennessee’s prison population and the reforms needed to reduce it, click here.