Comments of The Sentencing Project on Restoring Voting Rights in Tennessee

From: The Sentencing Project, Feb 20-21st, 2013:

Tennessee is among the most punitive states in the nation in denying voting rights to citizens who have committed a felony.  In 2010, over 340,000 Tennesseans – 7 percent of the state’s voting-age population – were denied the right to vote because of their criminal history.  Nearly one in five African Americans in Tennessee is disenfranchised.

Moreover, the state is unique in requiring that offenders pay not only all financial obligations but also all outstanding child support arrears before their voting rights are restored – a burden that falls disproportionately on the poor.

Felony disenfranchisement is not only unjust and undemocratic, but it is counterproductive to the goal of increasing public safety.  By clicking here, you can read comments submitted by The Sentencing Project to a Tennessee panel studying how the state might bring more of its citizens into the electoral process rather than excluding them through felony disenfranchisement.

No Exit

A new report released by The Sentencing Project finds a record 140,610 individuals are now serving life sentences in state and federal prisons, 6,807 of whom were juveniles at the time of the crime. In addition, 29% of persons serving a life sentence (41,095) have no possibility of parole, and 1,755 were juveniles at the time of the crime.

No Exit: The Expanding Use of Life Sentences in America represents the first nationwide collection of life sentence data documenting race, ethnicity and gender. The report’s findings reveal overwhelming racial and ethnic disparities in the allocation of life sentences: 66% of all persons sentenced to life are non-white, and 77% of juveniles serving life sentences are non-white.

Other findings in the report include:

* In five states – Alabama, California, Massachusetts, Nevada, and New York – at least 1 in 6 prisoners is serving a life sentence.

* Five states – California, Florida, Louisiana, Michigan, and Pennsylvania – each have more than 3,000 people serving life without parole. Pennsylvania leads the nation with 345 juveniles serving sentences of life without parole.

* In six states – Illinois, Iowa, Louisiana, Maine, Pennsylvania, and South Dakota – and the federal government, all life sentences are imposed without the possibility of parole.

* The dramatic growth in life sentences is not primarily a result of higher crime rates, but of policy changes that have imposed harsher punishments and restricted parole consideration.

The authors of the report, Ashley Nellis, Ph.D., research analyst and Ryan S. King, policy analyst of The Sentencing Project, state that persons serving life sentences “include those who present a serious threat to public safety, but also include those for whom the length of sentence is questionable.” One such case documented is that of Ali Foroutan, currently serving a sentence of 25 years to life for possession of 0.03 grams of methamphetamine under California’s “three strikes” law.

The Sentencing Project calls for the elimination of sentences of life without parole, and restoring discretion to parole boards to determine suitability for release. The report also recommends that individuals serving parole-eligible life sentences be properly prepared for reentry back into the community.