Tennessee Supreme Court Rules That Trial Judges May Set Minimum Term of Confinement Before Felony Split Confinement Prisoners Become Eligible to Earn Work-Based Sentence Reduction Credits

August 16, 2017

Jason Ray brought a lawsuit in federal court in West Tennessee seeking money damages for an alleged violation of his civil rights.  Mr. Ray pled guilty in 2013 to theft of property over $60,000 and received a sentence of ten years, with eleven months and twenty-nine days to be served in the local jail and the rest on supervised probation.  This type of sentence is known as split confinement.

The trial judge who sentenced Mr. Ray required him to serve seventy-five percent of his jail sentence before becoming eligible to receive sentence reduction credits based on participation in work programs.  Mr. Ray began working in the kitchen as soon as he entered the jail and argued that he would have been released from the jail seven weeks earlier had he received credits for all his work from the beginning of his jail term.  Mr. Ray argued that the trial judge did not have authority to include the seventy-five percent requirement under Tennessee law.  The federal court hearing Mr. Ray’s case invoked a rule of procedure that allowed it to ask the Tennessee Supreme Court to address whether trial court judges have this authority.

The Tennessee Supreme Court agreed to answer this question, and in doing so, confronted a thicket of sometimes inconsistent and overlapping sentencing laws.  The Court acknowledged that none of these laws expressly authorizes trial judges to fix a percentage of the jail sentence that a felony defendant must serve before becoming eligible to participate in work programs.  The Court concluded, however, that sentencing laws implicitly authorize trial courts to do so by granting trial courts broad authority to fashion appropriate sentences and by encouraging trial courts to impose sentences other than incarceration when appropriate.

The federal court also asked the Tennessee Supreme Court whether sheriffs have a duty to challenge improper or potentially improper sentences.  The Court answered this second question in the negative and emphasized that Sheriffs have a duty under Tennessee law to enforce judgments and orders.  The Court agreed that Sheriffs may seek clarification of court orders but emphasized that they have no obligation to challenge improper or potentially improper sentences.

To read the unanimous opinion in Jason Ray v. Madison County, Tennessee, authored by Justice Cornelia A. Clark, go to the opinions section of TNCourts.gov.