Tennessee Supreme Court Hears Case To Reduce Sentences For Juveniles Convicted Of Murder
The Tennessee Supreme Court weighed a potential path forward for the nearly 200 people serving life sentences for crimes they committed as teens at a hearing Wednesday. They could see themselves eligible for parole in half the time allowed under current Tennessee law.
The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled in multiple cases that juveniles shouldn’t have to spend the rest of their life behind bars for a mistake they made as children. The court determined that minors should have a “meaningful opportunity to obtain release.”
How Tennessee justices interpret the word “meaningful” will likely play a central role in the outcome of this case.
The crux of the matter is whether Tennessee’s mandatory minimum sentence for murder violates juveniles’ constitutional rights. Justices are considering whether to revert back to an older sentencing statute.
Until 1995, people convicted of murder in Tennessee could parole out after 25 years. But then a new governor helped pass a law enforcement package that included longer sentences. It also required people to serve most or all of their murder sentence, instead of being released on parole. In the case of a life sentence for murder, people must stay in prison for at least 51 years.
Defense attorneys argue this means people convicted as teens are spending too long in prison. The latest case was filed on behalf of Tyshon Booker, a young man who was sentenced to life in prison at 16 for killing someone during a botched robbery.
“Children are different,” assistant public defender Jonathan Harwell told justices. “Despite that clear teaching of the Eighth Amendment, Tyshon Booker in this case automatically received the same sentence for felony murder that any adult would receive. That is a sentence that condemns him to live the virtual entirety of his life in prison and quite likely to die behind bars, as well.”
Prosecutors acknowledged at Wednesday’s hearing that Tennessee keeps teens in prison much longer than other states, and that repealing the 1995 law could bring the state more in line with the rest of the country.
Still, prosecutors say that move isn’t necessary, since juveniles in Tennessee do have the chance to be released after 51 years — even if it’s not guaranteed that they’ll live that long. They say it should be up to the legislature to decide if the 1995 statute is still in line with the state’s moral values, not the court.
“These questions are extraordinarily difficult to answer. How long is too long? How long is unjust?” deputy attorney general Zachary Hinkle said at the hearing. “I don’t know that you could ever come to what would be a right decision.”
But justices raised several concerns about Tennessee’s current sentencing law, as it applies to young people. And they questioned the prosecution’s argument that challenging that law fell beyond their purview.
Justice Sharon Lee pointed to a brief from the Tennessee Conference of the NAACP, which found that nearly 80% of juveniles sentenced to life imprisonment in Tennessee are Black, compared to 17% of the state’s population. Others highlighted the stark disparities between sentence lengths for teens convicted of murder in Tennessee versus other states. And several wondered whether minors sentenced to 51 years have a “meaningful” chance at life outside of prison, as the U.S. Supreme Court requires.
Lee suggested that could include “a chance to have a family, have a job, education, just something so that they have meaningful lives.”
“If they left out ‘meaningful,’ I think I could agree with you,” she said. “But I’m troubled by the use of the word ‘meaningful.’ It has to mean something.”
Samantha Max is a Report for America corps member.