KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) — Knox County District Attorney General Charme Allen is sharing her concerns over legislation that essentially adjusts what a life sentence is in Tennessee. State law defines life as 60 years. Currently, those facing sentences with the possibility of parole become eligible after serving 85% of a life sentence, or 51 years.
The proposed change would change eligibility to after 60% served, or 36 years. However, the bill also includes a 25-year minimum. Allen fears the new threshold would result in convicts getting out even sooner, provided they earn certain credits while incarcerated.
“Having lost a loved one, you expect, I think, from the criminal justice system, that the person who took your loved one, and was found guilty, and sentenced to life, it should mean more than 25 years,” Allen said.
There is no release eligibility for those sentenced to life without the chance of parole under the bill.
While there is an effort, nationally, to reform sentencing, particular surrounding those serving time for decadeslong drug offenses, Allen emphasized life in prison can only be handed down to one type of offender in Tennessee.
“We’re talking about first-degree murder,” she said. “You can only get there with a premeditated, first-degree murder, or felony murder.”
In other states, she noted, a person can be sentenced to life for multiple reasons, including treason. She believes simply comparing a life sentence in Tennessee to another state’s “you’re not comparing apples to apples,” and says “you have to specifically look at homicide.”
Allen also pointed to a fiscal note from the state that shows more than 1,600 people, currently in prison across Tennessee, would be impacted by this bill.
If passed, the bill would also have a retroactive effect, meaning many currently serving life in prison would either immediately become eligible, or become eligible decades before victims’ families were anticipating.
“It is certainly wrong to go back and tell homicide families that have relied upon the fact that the person that took their loved one’s life is going to be gone for 51 years,” Allen added.
She also suggested an adjustment to when a prisoner is eligible for parole for first-degree murder, would have to result in a change further down the sentencing grid, meaning less time to serve for other convictions, including second-degree murder.
Joan Berry has been an advocate for victims and their families for more than a decade. Her daughter, Johnia, was murdered more than 16 years ago. It’s been more than 14 years since Johnia’s suspected killer ended his life in jail.
“We don’t have to fight the system the way everyone else does,” Berry said. “We don’t have to worry about parole hearings or worry about him getting out of jail early like a lot of family members do.”
Despite this, Berry is still speaking up for other families, and speaking out against this proposed change.
“Fifty-one years is certainly not enough and to think that they would even think about reducing it to twenty-five years?” she said. “I mean, I need somebody to explain to me, why is this good? It doesn’t sound good to me.”
Berry hopes more people will sign the change.org petition and state lawmakers reconsider the change.
The fiscal note from the state estimated a $1.2 million savings to the state in the first year, if the legislation becomes law, and $2.46 million annually for the following nine years. The bill passed the Senate in April and now heads to the state House for further consideration.