Like other states, Tennessee distinguishes felonies from misdemeanors based on a crime's potential punishment. Misdemeanors can be penalized by up to a year in jail. Any crime that carries a possible penalty of one year and up to life in prison or the death penalty is a felony.
Felony sentencing in Tennessee involves several factors: the felony classification (class A to E), the sentencing range, and the recommended disposition (prison or non-prison sanctions). Read on to learn how judges determine and impose felony sentences and how parole works in Tennessee.
Tennessee law divides felonies into five classifications—Classes A to E. Class A felonies are the most severe and Class E felonies the least. First-degree murder is the one exception; it's listed as one class above Class A.
Below are the sentencing ranges for each felony class and examples of crimes falling under each classification.
First-degree murder is the only crime that carries the possibility of being sentenced to death. If the jury does not impose the death penalty, the defendant faces life imprisonment with or without the possibility of parole.
Class D felonies carry possible sentences of 2 to 12 years in prison and fines up to $5,000. Examples include extortion, reckless homicide, and unlawful surveillance.
Class E felonies carry possible sentences of 1 to 6 years in prison and fines up to $3,000. Examples include theft of a firearm, felon in possession of a handgun, and aggravated rioting.
In addition to the felony classes listed above, Tennessee law carries stiff enhanced penalties for repeat violent offenders and criminal gang offenders. Under the repeat violent offender law (or three strikes law), an offender who commits a third "violent offense" (listed in statute) faces a life sentence without the possibility of parole. Those convicted of a criminal gang offense can receive enhanced penalties, such as punishment that is one or two classifications higher than the underlying offense.
After a conviction but before sentencing, the judges must determine an offender's criminal history category, which can range from no criminal history to having six or more prior felonies. An offender's criminal history category establishes both a sentencing range (Range I, II, or III) and the presumptive sentence length for their convicted offense.
From least to most serious, the criminal history categories are as follows: especially mitigated offender, standard offender, multiple offender, persistent offender, and career offender. Persistent and career offenders fall under the highest sentencing range—Range III. Multiple offenders are subject to Range II penalties. Standard offenders fall under Range I penalties. Especially mitigated offenders qualify for a reduction in a Range I penalty.
To understand how this works, let's look at the possible sentences for a person convicted of a Class B felony, punishable by 8 to 30 years in prison. This person would face the following penalties based on their criminal history category:
Each of the five felony classes (A to E) is divided into these offender categories and sentencing ranges.
A judge can order any sentence term within the above ranges. When making sentencing decisions, the court looks to numerous factors, such as the seriousness of the offense, public safety, and rehabilitation of the offender.
Non-prison sanctions. For low-level felonies (Range I or below for Class C, D, or E), the law directs the court to consider non-prison sentencing alternatives. Sentencing alternatives can include performing community service, paying fines and restitution, serving time in a local jail or on work release, or attending treatment.
Probation. Probation is an option only for offenders whose sentence doesn't exceed 10 years. (Some crimes, though, don't qualify for probation no matter the sentence length.) When placing a defendant on probation, the judge typically announces the sentence term but orders the prison sentence suspended. Probation gives the offender an opportunity to serve most or all of their sentence in the community under certain conditions. Violating conditions can result in the judge ending the suspension and sending the offender to prison.
Prison. For offenders ineligible for probation or with sentences longer than 10 years, prison is the remaining option. The imposed sentence represents the longest amount of time a person can spend in prison. Some offenders may be able to shave time off their sentence by earning good-time credits or by getting an educational degree in prison. Those who qualify for parole may be granted early release, as described below.
Parole offers some offenders the chance for early release from prison. But early release doesn't mean the sentence is over. A parolee remains under supervision during the remainder of their sentence term. Violating parole terms can result in the offender being sent back to prison.
Offenders who are sentenced to prison must serve a certain percentage of their sentence term before becoming eligible for parole. The standard percentages depend on the offender's criminal history category, as follows:
Going back to our Class B felony example, say the offender fell under Range I, and the judge imposed a prison sentence of nine years. This offender must serve at least three years (30% of the nine years) before becoming eligible for parole.
Not all crimes fall under the standard percentages described above. Lawmakers have singled out certain crimes for longer terms. For example, a person serving a sentence for aggravated robbery must serve 85% of their sentence. Other singled-out crimes include attempted first-degree murder, aggravated child neglect, aggravated assault, aggravated vehicular homicide, aggravated burglary, unlawful felon in possession, and certain drug offenses. The law prohibits parole for identified violent offenses and sex offenses.
Inmates who have reached their parole release eligibility date (RED) may apply to the parole board for release. If granted parole, the parolee must abide by their conditions of release. Conditions typically include obeying all laws, reporting to their parole officer, maintaining employment, submitting to drug tests, and not moving or traveling without permission.
Parolees must be actively supervised in the community for at least a year. Conditions of parole, however, remain in effect until the parolee's sentence term is complete (minus any good-time credits earned). Failure to abide by the terms can result in revocation of parole and going back to prison.
Tennessee law limits expunction of felony convictions to specified nonviolent, low-level felonies (Classes C, D, and E only). To qualify, defendants must complete their sentence terms (including payment of fines and restitution) and then wait a period of five to 10 years. The process requires the defendant to petition the court and pay a fee. If granted, the expunged conviction and related records are deemed never to have occurred. Only a confidential file remains with the court for purposes of future sentencing.
Having a felony conviction carries serious and long-lasting consequences. A felony record can mean harsher sentences if convicted again and will make it difficult to obtain housing and employment.
An experienced criminal defense attorney can determine whether you have any grounds for dismissal of the charges against you, explore plea options, or represent you at trial. A local attorney will be familiar with the judges, prosecutors, and other criminal justice players in the courtroom.
(Tenn. Code §§ 40-32-101; 40-35-102 to -120, -210, -303, -501; 40-36-101 (2021).)