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Tennessee’s governor is granting clemency to 17 people and paving the way for more in the future

TN Photo Services

Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee is granting clemency to 17 people he says are “ready for productive lives beyond their sentences.”
Some are still in prison and will now be eligible for early release, while others have already served their time and will be able to remove their conviction from their criminal history. One person has also been exonerated, which means the governor found he was wrongfully convicted.
This is the first time the governor has used his executive powers to grant clemency since taking office in 2019.
Lee ran on a campaign of criminal justice reform and convened a task force his first year in office to recommend ways to reduce the state’s prison population, particularly when it comes to people who are released and then end up back behind bars.
At the time, the group found Tennessee’s prison population had grown about 400% since 1978. Researchers also found the state’s incarceration rate was on the rise, while it was declining in most other parts of the country. The main reason for that, they found, was that people were spending longer amounts of time in prison. Many were serving lengthy sentences for drug crimes.
Some have criticized the governor for not using his authority sooner to release people from prison. Activists urged him to do so during the pandemic, when jails and prisons became hotspots for COVID-19. Lee did not release anyone from prison during the pandemic, though he did delay two executions. He declined to grant clemency to seven people who have been executed during his tenure.
Activists have also asked the governor to release the hundreds of people who weren’t grandfathered into a 2020 law that got rid of harsh sentencing requirements for drug sales that take place near schools.
Between 1995 and 2020, people convicted of selling drugs near a school, daycare, public library, recreation center or park faced mandatory minimum sentences, even if they had no prior criminal record. The statute also bumped up the felony grade of the charges they faced, which made their sentences even longer.
The new legislation, which passed with sweeping bipartisan support, shrunk so-called drug-free schools zones to 500 feet and gave judges more flexibility in sentencing. But it didn’t put a system in place for those who had already received lengthy sentences under the old law.
Now, more than a year after the new law took effect, Gov. Lee says he is creating a process to review clemency applications from the 335 individuals who are still in prison for crimes committed in drug-free school zones before September 1, 2020 (you can apply using this form).
Not everyone is guaranteed an early release. Lee says they won’t qualify if they sold drugs to a minor or have been disciplined for a drug-related infraction, like a positive drug test, in the past three years.

Samantha Max covers criminal justice for WPLN and joins the newroom through the Report for America program. This is her second year with Report for America: She spent her first year in Macon, Ga., covering health and inequity for The Telegraph and
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