By Brian Haas, The Tennessean
Joe Wauford was about an hour away from being released from the
Charles B. Bass Correctional Complex after spending half of the last
decade in prison.
"I'm a 14-time felon, so I'm blessed they didn't put me away," said Wauford, 44.
prisoners have had some of the shortest stays in prison over the past
two decades when compared with other states, according to a recent report by the Pew Center on the States.
The report, which measured average length of stay for people sent to
prison in 35 states, found that Tennessee had the fourth-lowest average
prison stays in the nation in 2009, behind only South Dakota, Illinois
Prisoners here could expect an average prison stay
of 1.9 years, 6 percent less than they would in 1990 and far lower than
the national average for 2009, which was just under three years.
Calhoun had served less than three years of a 12-year robbery sentence
in August 2011 when he was back on the streets and confronting pizza
delivery man Kent Lindley. He threw Lindley on the ground at Arbor Hills
Apartments and took $22 from him. Calhoun went back to prison and is
serving eight years for the attack.
"I got lucky, I wasn't killed," Lindley said. "What can I say? Someone was on the streets who shouldn't have been."
sentences are affected by the complicated interplay between
legislators, who write the penalties and what the minimum percentage of
time is that a prisoner has to serve before being eligible for parole;
judges, who have discretion in sentencing offenders to prison; and the
state's parole officials, who determine whether an offender can leave
"The fact that we're one of the lowest in the
country doesn't surprise me," said Davidson County District Attorney
General Torry Johnson. "The legislature has put into effect a lot of
different alternative punishments and presumptions regarding people who
should get probation - things that many states have been slow to adopt.
Definitely one of the goals of that was to not only reduce but to better
control prison populations."
State officials point out that while
offenders spend less time in prison today than 20 years ago for
property and drug crimes, there was a 41 percent increase in prison time
for violent crimes.
"An assumption may be that the state as a
whole wants to ensure that people are not being incarcerated just
because they have a drug problem but that they are getting the necessary
treatment they need in community programs shown to be effective and
less expensive than prison," said Dorinda Carter, spokeswoman for the
Tennessee Department of Correction. "As an agency, we want the more
expensive beds reserved for those who pose the greatest threat to public
safety and need to be in a secure environment, which is indicative of
the increases in time served for violent offenses."
But the study already has begun a conversation about whether Tennessee should be stricter.
think it's certainly something we need to address and find out why it's
happening," said state Sen. Mae Beavers, R-Mt. Juliet. "I would
certainly like to be tougher on crime."
Ryan King, research director for Pew, said that while much has been
made of the rise in the nation's prison population, little research had
previously been done on how much time offenders spend behind bars.
Overall, the study found that time served across the nation increased in
violent, property and drug crimes from 1990 to 2009.
their research shows opportunities for states to start rethinking their
incarceration policies. Had all the nation's offenders spent as much
time in prison in 2009 as they did in 1990, for example, King said
states would have saved $10 billion in incarceration costs. The study
did not break out Tennessee's potential savings.
"There's a lot of
opportunity for states to kind of revisit their policies around
nonviolent offenders that I think can both control corrections costs
while holding offenders accountable," King said. "Our takeaway is the
violent and career criminals need to be behind bars for a long time ...
but a large number of lower-risk, nonviolent offenders could serve less
time without increasing crime."
Tennessee saw an increase in the
amount of time violent felons stay in prison during those two decades,
but it still lagged almost a year and a half behind the national
Johnson said that Tennessee began revising sentencing
guidelines in the 1980s to combat prison crowding. Those reforms
included lowering the minimum time prisoners must serve when convicted,
meaning some offenders serve as little as 20 percent of their sentence,
though in recent years the legislature has increased those percentages
for violent crimes.
"For a lot of people who don't commit really
serious violent felonies, or major drug offenses - for everybody else,
you've got to work pretty hard to get into prison," he said. "The core
is designed to give you multiple opportunities to straighten yourself
out before you get sent to prison."
That notion was applauded by Jeff Henry, executive director of the Tennessee Public Defenders Conference.
you get over the initial shock of saying, 'Tennessee is easy on crime,'
you realize it doesn't really say that," he said. "It really makes me
have good feelings about what we're doing in Tennessee here. We realized
that lengthy incarceration is not always the best deterrence to
But Beavers said it is time to reassess Tennessee's sentencing guidelines.
get complaints all the time about people who the public doesn't feel
like they've gotten as much time as they deserved for a violent crime,"
A second chance
Wauford, the felon, said he didn't feel like Tennessee was
particularly harsh on him, considering his felony record stretches back
to 1994. In 2003, he was convicted of his most recent offense,
aggravated burglary and theft, and sentenced to eight years.
He was out in two. In 2009, he violated his parole and was sent back to prison.
Tuesday, Wauford stood outside the first set of prison gates leading to
freedom, all his possessions in a clear, plastic bag. He was excited,
nervous and hungry for some fresh fruit after years of prison grub.
of all, he said he was wiser, having seen his sister, mother and father
die while he was in prison. He said he wants to stay out of prison so
he can be there for his daughter and granddaughter.
"I'm a fool.
My daughter grew up without me, but I'm blessed. I've got a second
chance," he said. "There's a whole beautiful world out there getting
thrown away for something stupid."
The first gate opened and he
walked to a small office to change into civilian clothes. A guard went
over his paperwork - it takes only a minute.
"That's it?" he asked the guard processing him.
"Yup, good luck."
faced the last gate separating him from freedom. As it opened, he
presented his final paperwork to Capt. Roderick Scott, who looked it
over and then shook his hand.
"Take care of yourself," Scott said. "Do the right thing."