Sen. Raumesh Akbari (D-Memphis), a champion for juvenile sentencing reform, is featured in a documentary premiering this week that explores the lengthy sentences handed down to juvenile offenders in Tennessee, which has the longest mandatory prison time for juveniles convicted of murder of any state in the nation.
For years, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that even kids who commit the most serious crimes deserve a chance at release from prison. As a result, 32 states have now banned life without parole for juveniles altogether.
But, in Tennessee, any individual found guilty of first-degree murder must serve a mandatory 51 years in prison before a chance at release — including minors. A de facto life sentence, reformers argue.
Sen. Akbari, who has sponsored legislation to update Tennessee’s sentencing law and provide juveniles with a life sentence a chance at parole, says criminal cases involving juveniles should be treated individually so a court can account adverse childhood experiences, abuse and inhibited decision-making abilities.
“Their brain does not fully develop until they’re 20, 21, between 21 and 25, so we know a lot more about brain development and if that juvenile is thinking like an adult or if they’re thinking like a child,” Akbari says in the documentary.
“51 Years Behind Bars,” a documentary by Al Jazeera English’s “Fault Lines,” explores the case of Almeer Nance, who is serving a mandatory minimum 51 years in prison for an armed robbery in Knoxville that left a man dead in 1996, when he was 16 years old. During the robbery, Nance’s 20-year-old accomplice, Robert Manning, shot and killed Joseph Ridings, a clerk at Radio Shack. In Tennessee, an accomplice may be convicted of murder, even if he or she didn’t pull the trigger. Nance is now 43.
In Tennessee, 80% of youth sentenced to life in prison are Black, including Nance. That figure also holds true for Knox County, where Nance was convicted, according to the data compiled by the Tennessee Conference of the NAACP.
The number of people sentenced to life as juveniles in Tennessee has hovered around 200 in recent years.
The Tennessee Supreme Court is currently considering a separate case challenging the 51-year mandatory minimum sentence for juveniles.