The State of Prisons in Tennessee

By Published On: June 20th, 2020Tags: , 2.5 min read
Shot of a young man wearing a mask in a jail

Tennessee Prison Population at Record Highs

[Tennessee has] more than 1,000 inmates in Tennessee serving life sentences with the possibility of parole after 51 years — among the longest such sentences in the nation.

The state’s extraordinary sentencing requirements, combined with a boom of prisoners from rural counties, has steadily pushed Tennessee’s prison population to its second consecutive year of record highs, according to state data from the last 12 months ending in June.

That climb bucks the national trend of most states, which have declining prison populations, and causes a slew of problems, from overcrowding to mounting taxpayer bills.

One silver lining: the state’s resident population has grown faster than the number of people sent to prison, so Tennessee saw a 0.7% drop in the prison incarceration rate in the 2018 calendar year, according to an analysis by the Vera Institute of Justice.

Sycamore Institute Data

The Sycamore Institute is an independent, nonpartisan public policy research center for Tennessee.  It published two reports on Tennessee prisons, in February and March 2019.

Incarceration in Tennessee: Who, Where, Why, and How Long?

Community Supervision, Prison Releases, and Recidivism in Tennessee

Takeaways from these reports:

  • Tennessee’s state felony incarceration rate grew 68% from FY 1991-2018. Trends in state incarceration and crime rates vary significantly by offense type.
  • State prisoners are disproportionately black, although the proportion of black inmates is falling. White women are the fastest-growing segment of state prisoners.
  • The state prisoner population is getting older, which could affect the state budget since older individuals tend to incur more medical expenses.
  • In FY 2018, Tennessee housed 73% of its incarcerated felons in state prisons and 27% in local jails. The majority of state prisoners in local jails are waiting for space in a state facility.
  • Average sentences and time served are getting longer for most offense types, especially drug offenders who make up a growing share of incarcerations.
  • 72% of Tennessee’s corrections population lived under community supervision in 2018 —58,000 on probation, 11,000 on parole, and 8,000 in the Community Corrections program.
  • Each year, around 40% of entries to the state prisoner population are people going or returning to prison for violating community supervision requirements.
  • About half of the state prisoners Tennessee releases each year return to prison within three years. From 2001-2005, recidivism was highest among those in Community Corrections and lowest for those whose sentences had expired.
  • Expired sentences make up a growing share of state prisoner releases as the proportion of parole and probation releases falls.
  • Community supervision costs TDOC far less per offender than incarceration, and the number of people under community supervision has grown faster than related state spending.

Prison Policy Initiative Data

The Prison Policy Initiative was formed “to document and publicize how mass incarceration punishes our entire society.” It published this data in June 2018.

Tennessee has an incarceration rate of 853 per 100,000 people (including prisons, jails, immigration detention, and juvenile justice facilities), meaning that it locks up a higher percentage of its people than many wealthy democracies do. [Note: Prison Policy Initiative makes that comparison for most all states.]

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