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Facts about Tennessee’s 51-year life sentences and why it should be repealed

Tennessee is the only state in the U.S. with two life without parole sentences. HB1128/SB1181 seeks to change that, and here’s why.

In 1995, after only twenty minutes of discussion, the Senate Judiciary Committee voted to increase the mandatory minimum number of years for a life sentence with possibility of parole from 25 to 51 calendar years.

Though brief, the discussion did also include the presentation of reports which stated that because long-term incarceration reduces life expectancy by about 25 years, prisoners serving the 51-year life sentence were not expected to survive its duration. In fact, experts have determined that only 1.5 percent of individuals might survive the entire 51 years.

Therefore, a person who is sentenced to 51 years is effectively sentenced to life in prison without possibility of parole.

The majority of states in the US have two life sentence options: A life without parole sentence, and a life with parole, in which a person is sentenced to a mandatory 20 to 25 years, on average, prior to going up for parole. No state has two life without parole sentences. Tennessee’s 51 year life with possibility of parole sentence is the only such sentence in this country. The national average is 25 years for life with possibility of parole.

Key Considerations

There are two important questions to consider when determining the appropriateness of the 1995 decision.

What is the economic cost of implementing two life without parole sentences?

For the additional 26 years over and above our historical 25 year life sentence, are we actually purchasing an additional 26 years of safety? Do these individuals realistically present a continued risk to the public after serving for 25 years? If so, would that risk justify the economic cost?

Economic Impact

In consideration of the vote to increase the mandatory minimum of years for a life sentence with possibility of parole from 25 to 51 calendar years, the projected increase in state expenditures was approximately $60 million for all 11 sentences that were increased.

But the estimation was woefully inadequate.

There are currently about 1,200 individuals serving the 51-year life sentence with option for parole. The annual cost to incarcerate an individual in Tennessee is slightly more than $26,000 per year per person. Keep in mind that for those over the age of 50, incarceration costs double; costing instead an average of $50,000 per person per year.

Shockingly, the actual cost of keeping these individuals locked up for life will be a staggering $2.097 billion.

Lastly, when we adjust for a rise in incarceration costs over time, that amount will continue to climb.

At the time of enactment, the General Assembly didn’t budget for the reality of this $2.097 billion price tag for the 51 year life sentences, in fact, the estimated price tag for all 11 increased sentences was only about $60 million.

HB1128/SB1181, will adjust the life sentence with possibility of parole back to 25 years, saving the state of Tennessee as much as $1.27 billion.

Parole statistics show us that on average individuals serving a life sentence with possibility for parole under the 1989 sentencing structure will serve about 28 years. Even with this adjustment, the state would still save at least $700 million.


Is having two life without parole sentences worth the economic cost to citizens? Does the mammoth cost of excessive sentencing yield any real benefits to public safety?

In fact, data shows that those who have served life sentences with parole are the least likely to reoffend and return to prison upon parole.

A 2011 Stanford Law School Study looked at 860 individuals who had been convicted of homicide, served 25-year life sentences, and were released in the state of California on parole.

Over a 15 year period, less than 1 percent of those paroled lifers returned to prison or jail because of new offenses, zero percent of which involved taking a life.

In 2002, a more comprehensive review by the U.S. Bureau of Statistics examined 272,000 lifers, paroled from 15 states. This group had a meager 1.2 percent recidivism rate; dramatically below the estimated national average of more than 60 percent.

Lastly, a 2007 recidivism study conducted by The Department of Corrections found that across categories, felons who had committed person offense — including homicide — have the lowest return rates, system wide.

This extremely low recidivism rate is why the national average for a life sentence with possibility of parole is 25 years.

Policy Considerations

Sentencing limits exist based on the guiding principle that public policy should be guided by justice, not vengeance. To consider justice means to consider the common good of society. In other words, laws and policies should promote stable families, and stable communities.

Studies have consistently shown that people age out of crime, particularly violent crime, and more specifically, murder, which is most often a crime born of a particular circumstance often involving high emotion, and the psychological break of an offender between the ages of 17 and 27.

The Stanford Law School report showed that most acts of violence are, in fact, committed by people under age 30; that number declines drastically after age 40; and even more so after age 50.

While the likelihood of re-offense declines dramatically as one ages, the cost to incarcerate individuals over the age of 50 more than doubles.

Thus, it is evident that the 51-year life sentence with parole is based not on justice, but on vengeance. It disregards the good of families, communities, and the economy.

Finally, the possibility of parole means that 12 citizens have the option to consider whether the individual being sentenced may one day re-enter society, rejoin their family, and make meaningful contributions to their community.

When a jury elects a life sentence instead of a life without parole sentence, it is clear that they intend for that individual to at least have the chance for parole. The option to select a life sentence with possibility for parole must reflect the wishes of the jury accurately. As it currently stands — the 51-year life sentence — does not.

If HB1128/SB1181 passes, prosecutors will still have every option to pursue a life sentence without parole if they believe that the crime warrants it, and if they can prove the aggravated circumstances required by law.


HB1128/SB1181 will repeal the 1995 law and restore Tennessee to the 1989 law, reducing the minimum life sentence with possibility of parole to 25 years.

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