Understanding the TN Board of Parole
When Don and Shawnda were granted clemency by Tennessee Governor Phil Bredesen in 2011, they became eligible for parole in 2012. Parole is the early release of an incarcerated individual, typically due to good behavior, and the Board of Parole (BOP) serves to determine if an individual deserves parole. An individual's eligibility for parole may be set during their original sentencing or it may be immediately granted upon receiving clemency.
As stated on their website, the TN BOP considers all of the following factors when determining an individual’s eligibility for parole: “nature of the offense, prior criminal history, program participation, length of time served, institutional record, and community support or opposition.” However, the TN BOP has often abused their power by evaluating an individual's eligibility for parole solely on the basis of the “seriousness of their crime,” rather than making a more holistic decision. This new standard allows the BOP to arbitrarily and permanently cage individuals for their original offense without taking into account their demonstrated rehabilitation and readiness for release. In fact, in a recent revision of the Model Penal Code, an influential document in the legal realm, scholars stated: “No one has documented an example in contemporary practice, or from any historical era, of a parole-release system that has performed reasonably well in discharging its goals.” This lack of accountability makes parole boards “a failed institution.”
The Tennessee BOP is made up of seven members. BOP members are appointed by the governor in office at the time of a vacancy. Each member serves a six year term and receives an annual salary of over $100,000. Of the seven current members, three members have experience with the legal system, including a police officer, state trooper, and sheriff. However, as noted in a 2017 article by the Tennesean, other members of the BOP include the son of a member of Congress, the wife of a member of Congress, and a former candidate for Congress. Additionally, despite the fact that 44% of individuals who are incarcerated in Tennessee are African American, there is only one person of color on the BOP.
The composition of the Tennessee BOP is not the only flaw; so is its inaction. In 2019, the BOP granted only 24% of parole applications, a significant decrease from the 40% granted in 2011. The parole grant rate in initial hearings has also declined a dramatic 59% in the last five years. The primary reasons cited for parole denial were risk level and seriousness of offense.
In repeatedly denying Don and Shawnda their freedom based on “the seriousness of their offense,” the Tennessee BOP has demonstrated its practices to be fundamentally incongruent with its stated purposes. #FreeDon&Shawnda is meant to show Tennessee’s BOP that the state’s citizens are paying attention to their conduct. We demand that they take seriously the conclusions Bredesen came to about Don and Shawnda 8 years ago.