Excessive Sentencing Project - Tennessee

Policies and rulings on lengthy imprisonment terms in Tennessee.

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  • The state uses a guideline sentencing system with three separate tiers based on an offender’s criminal history. 
State Constitution

Art. I, § 16: That excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.

Sentencing Statutes

Career offenders: Any offender who has been previously convicted of six or more Class A, B, or C felonies and whose instant conviction is for a Class A, B, or C felony must receive the maximum Range III sentence. T.C.A. §40-35-108(1). Any offender with at least three Class A, or any combination of four Class A or B felony convictions must receive the maximum Range III sentence if the instant conviction is for a Class A or B felony. T.C.A. §40-35-108(2). Any offender with six prior felony convictions of any class must receive the maximum Range III sentence if the instant offense is a Class D or E felony. T.C.A. §40-35-108(3). 

Parole eligibility for career offenders is set at 60 percent. T.C.A. §40-35-501(f).

Sentencing ranges: Tennessee uses a guideline system with three-tiered sentencing ranges. T.C.A. §40-35-112. Range III sentences for Class A felonies range from 40 to 60 years; from 20-30 years for Class B felonies; from 10-15 years for Class C felonies; from 8-12 years for Class D felonies; from four to six years for Class E felonies. T.C.A. §40-35-112. 

Especially mitigated offenders: Trial judges may depart from the minimum guideline sentence upon the finding that an offender has no prior felony convictions and the court finds mitigating, but no enhancement factors.  T.C.A. §40-35-109.

Case Law

General 

Whether an offender qualifies as a mitigated offender is a question that rests within the sound discretion of the trial court; offenders will not generally qualify for sentencing as an especially mitigated offender absent extreme mitigating facts arising from the commission of the offense. State v. Buttrey, 756 S.W.2d 718 (Tenn.Crim.App. 1988).

On appeal, sentencing classification was overturned and defendant was re-classified as an especially mitigated offender where sentencing court overlooked a two-decade history of hospitalizations for mental illness when sentencing woman to 20 years in prison for murder. State v. Max, 714 S.W.2d 289 (Tenn.Crim.App. 1986).

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Proportionality 

State constitution calls for same proportionality analysis as the Eighth Amendment to the federal constitution. Van Tran v. State, 66 S.W.3d 790 (Tenn. 2001). However, fact that state and federal constitutions are textually similar does not foreclose the possibility of a more expansive interpretation of Art. I, §16. State v. Black, 815 S.W.2d 166 (Tenn. 1991). 

Severe Sentences 

Court upheld 25-year-sentence for child rape rejecting challenge to the voluntariness of plea entered by 70-year-old man who believed he would receive a lesser sentence due to his age and prior good works. Lucas v. State, 2012 WL 1656999 (Tenn.Crim.App. 2012)(slip copy).