KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) — Family members of crime victims gathered in West Knoxville on Monday evening. They were hoping to bring attention to a proposed change in legislation.

State house bill 1532 – if passed – would allow for early parole for some first-degree murderers.

“Victims don’t get a chance. No to House Bill 1532,” Michael Berry said, as he flipped through the posters he picked up.His daughter, Johnia Berry, was stabbed to death 17 years ago. Families, like his, who have been touched by violence are now speaking up.

“It makes you sick to think that they’re going to let somebody out that did a murder or a horrific crime to get life in prison,” Berry said.

WATE Political Analyst George Korda broke down the proposed legislation.

“Basically between a certain time between 1989 and 1995, someone who has been sentenced to life in prison for first degree murder can see a reduction in their sentence potentially from 51 years down to 25 years,” Korda said.

“I don’t get to see my daughter after 25 years, that was taken from me, they can’t give me that and save money. She was taken from me 17 years ago, so after 25 years she doesn’t get a chance to come back,” Berry said.

When we reached out to the bill’s house sponsor, Representative Dan Howell, for an interview, his legislative assistant said he will no longer be sponsoring the bill.

Korda detailed what comes next.

“I checked with the house administration just to be sure and what I was told is it would go to the co-sponsor. The co-sponsors can say yes I would like to become the prime sponsor, or they could defer as well. And then if nobody picks it up, then either the senator who passed it in the Senate has to find a sponsor in the house, or more likely, the bill will go to the desk, as they call it, where it will die a slow and lonely death until the end of session,” said Korda.

If the bill does go before a committee, the Berrys say they plan to go to Nashville to continue to voice their concerns to lawmakers.

We reached out to one of the bill’s co-sponsors. Representative Michael Curcio responded with the following email:

“First and foremost, my heart breaks for victims of violent crimes.  Unfortunately, very few families are spared from violent acts and ours is no different.  

However, as I have traveled the state, I find that many Tennesseans are surprised to hear that we in practice have two life sentences in Tennessee.  The first is what is called imprisonment for life. The second is what is called imprisonment for life without the possibility of parole. This means that a life sentence is intended to have the possibility of parole.

The first sentence is meant to be reserved, in part, for those offenders who, after much intervention and years of programming, could someday reform their lives.  However, the current parole eligibility is after the offender has served 51 years in prison.  The life expectancy of the incarcerated simply does not support that amount of time in prison.  

According to data obtained from the Tennessee Department of Correction, a relationship between incarceration and life expectancy has been identified. The average age of death for a TDOC inmate is 24 years less than for other Tennesseans. Moreover, the life expectancy of an inmate serving a life sentence in prison is only 59 years.  

I don’t highlight this to elicit sympathy for those that commit violent acts.  People who do wrong should be punished. In Tennessee we spend over $1 billion dollars every year doing just that, and our incarceration rate is 10% higher than the national average. You do the time in Tennessee.  But if the public policy intent behind a sentence of imprisonment for life is an acknowledgement that the person receiving that sentence could one day be reformed, then parole eligibility after 51 years is not the way to test that theory of redemption.  The offender simply won’t live that long.  Instead, I would argue that reviewing that case after 30 years would be more appropriate and more in line with national standards.  

Many in the prosecutorial community have presented arguments to me that really are in support of eliminating the sentence of imprisonment for life. They just don’t like the idea of parole eligibility at all.  And if that is a conversation they want to have, then we should have it as a state.  But, having a sentence which offers parole eligibility after 51 years, unfortunately, serves to produce a perverse incentive to the prosecution who may wish to jump a lower legal bar.  Afterall, obtaining a sentence of imprisonment for life is relatively easier to obtain than a sentence of imprisonment without the possibility of parole or even a sentence of death.  But when parole eligibility is at 51 years, why pursue the just action instead of the convenient one?   

By reforming this piece of our criminal justice system, I contend that more people who deserve a sentence of imprisonment for life without the possibility of parole or even a death sentence will get one, and only those who show signs of redemption will be allowed a shot at what should be reserved only for them.”