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Tennessee Supreme Court Clarifies Split Confinement Sentence Procedures

by David Reutter

In response to a federal district court’scertified questions of law, the Tennessee Supreme Court held that when imposing split confinement sentences under the Tennessee Sentencing Reform Act of 1989, a trial judge is authorized to fix a percentage that the defendant must serve in actual confinement before becoming eligible to earn work credits. It also held that sheriffs do not have a duty to challenge a prisoner’s sentence as improper or potentially improper.

Jason Ray pleaded guilty on June 3, 2013 to theft of property over $60,000, a class B felony, which has a sentencing range of 8-to-30 years. The trial court imposed a 10-year sentence in a form known as “split confinement” or “shock probation.” The sentence imposed by the court required 11 months and 29 days jail time, with the remainder to be served on supervised probation. The trial court required Ray to serve 75% of his jail time before being eligible for so-called trusty or work credits that could be applied to reduce the confinement portion of his sentence.

An error at the jail resulted in him earning trusty credits prior to serving at least 75% of his jail time as directed by the trial court. The court learned of the mistake and advised the jail staff. Although Ray continued to work as a trusty, he did not receive credits, and thus his confinement was not reduced by them. He was eventually released on April 16, 2014.

Ray subsequently filed a federal lawsuit alleging that he spent an additional seven weeks in jail because his work credits as a trusty were not applied. He argued that “he had a liberty interest in the work credits that the [trial court’s] order and instructions could not defeat. The trial judge advised the federal district court that by not applying the work credits jail staff had complied with his ruling.     

The federal district court asked the Tennessee Supreme Court the following two certified questions: (1) Does a sentencing court or county sheriff possess the ultimate authority to determine the eligibility of a felon sentenced to a split confinement sentence in a jail to participate in a trusty work program and therefore entitled to work credits under state law, and (2) if a sentencing court issues an improper or potentially improper sentence, does a sheriff have a duty to challenge the sentence.

At the outset, the Tennessee Supreme Court observed that there is a lack of statutory clarity in state statutes regarding split confinement sentencing procedures, so it must answer these unresolved issues.

As to the first question, the Court concluded “the Sentencing Act implicitly authorizes trial courts to establish the percentage a felony split confinement sentence that a defendant must serve…before becoming eligible to earn work sentencing credits.” The Court meticulously detailed seven reasons for reaching its conclusion, but essentially, it reasoned that because trial courts are granted broad discretion in fashioning appropriate sentences they have the authority to require a specified length of confinement in a split confinement sentence.

Regarding the second question, the Court ruled that “Tennessee sheriffs have no duty to challenge an improper or potentially improper sentence.” The duties of sheriffs are prescribed by the General Assembly, and there is no statute that requires sheriffs to challenge sentences. In fact, they lack any “authority to challenge a sentence imposed by a court,” the Supreme Court concluded. See: Ray v. Madison County, No. M2016-01577-SC-R23-CV (Tenn., Aug. 16, 2017). 

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Related legal case

Ray v. Madison County



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