NASHVILLE – Law and order legislation dominated debate in the State Senate this week as several key bills advanced, including legislation sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville) to enact tougher sentences for violent felons in possession of firearms. The legislation continues Norris’ series of anti-crime laws dubbed “Crooks with Guns” passed over the last decade to curb gun-related violence and focus resources on keeping violent criminals behind bars longer to protect the public.
Senate Bill 1241, which is supported by the District Attorneys General Conference, the Memphis Shelby Crime Commission, and the City of Memphis, follows recent reports that convicted felons illegally in possession of firearms have increased from 13 to 17 percent over the past three years.
“The proliferation of crimes involving firearms points to the need for a more effective hammer to deter felons from going armed,” said Senator Norris. “This legislation continues our efforts to give law enforcement authorities stronger tools to curb violent crime in Tennessee.”
Currently, possession of a firearm by a felon previously convicted for an offense involving the use or attempted use of force is punishable as a Class C felony, with sentences averaging 3.51 years. The legislation would increase the offense to a Class B felony, almost doubling the average time spent in jail to 6.31 years. Likewise, the legislation enhances penalties for possession of a firearm by a person with a prior felony drug conviction. The proposal elevates the crime from a Class D to a Class C felony, adding 1.28 years to the current average sentence of 2.23 years.
The bill also prohibits probation for possession of a firearm by a person with a prior felony conviction involving the use or attempted use of force.
The penalties are more in line with sentences imposed at the federal level involving gun possession by convicted felons.
“This enables the state system to do a better job of holding these individuals with prior violent crime and drug trafficking convictions more accountable under state law,” said Bill Gibbons, Executive Director of the Public Safety Institute at the University of Memphis and President of the Memphis Shelby Crime Commission. “But, also, it will help change behavior and maybe get some of these people to pause and think a little bit about their behavior and start making some good choices instead of bad choices.”
Gibbons was joined by Shelby County District Attorney General Amy Weirich and District Attorney General Mike Dunavant who also testified in support of the bill.
The legislation now goes to the Senate Finance, Ways and Means Committee for consideration of the proposal’s fiscal impact.
Convicted Criminals Unlawfully in the U.S. — The Senate Judiciary Committee also approved legislation on Tuesday that would allow courts in Tennessee to enhance the sentence of a convicted criminal who is unlawfully in the U.S. Senate Bill 1260, sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville), creates a new enhancement factor that a judge can consider in sentencing if the defendant was illegally or unlawfully in the U.S. at the time the offense was committed.
First Degree Murder / Insanity Plea — Legislation advanced through the Senate Finance Committee this week requiring that a trial court order an individual who has been charged with first degree murder or a Class A felony, who is found not guilty by reason of insanity, to participate in an outpatient treatment for a minimum of six months after being released to the community. This outpatient treatment applies regardless of whether or not the individual is or is not hospitalized. The bill is sponsored by Senator Doug Overbey (R-Maryville).
In addition, under this legislation, any individual who is currently committed to a hospital after being found not guilty by reason of insanity for first degree murder or a Class A felony by at the time the offense was committed is also subject to a trial court order to participate in outpatient treatment for at least six months when discharged from the facility.
“The bottom line is if a defendant is found not guilty by reasons of insanity, there is a problem,” said Senator Overbey. “This bill would permit the court to order outpatient treatment which would benefit the health, safety, and welfare of society.”
Senate Bill 1206 also requires that there be periodic reviews conducted by the trial court a minimum of once a year after the initial six-month period of outpatient treatment, in which the court will consider the various factors in deciding whether to continue or terminate the outpatient treatment requirement.
Organized Retail Crime – Legislation designed to address Organized Retail Crime (ORC) in Tennessee received final approval this week. It has been estimated that in 2015 alone Tennessee lost over $14 million in sales tax dollars and retailers lost over $200 million due to return fraud.
Senate Bill 119 expands the offense of theft of merchandise to include tampering with anti-shoplifting devices; using any artifice, instrument, container, device or other article to facilitate a theft; and, activating or interfering with a fire alarm system to facilitate a theft. The legislation, which is sponsored by Senator Richard Briggs (R-Knoxville), has already been approved by the House of Representatives and now goes to the governor for his signature.
Domestic Violence Victims – Similarly, the Senate Judiciary Committee approved legislation this week establishing a new procedure by which a person granted an order of protection may carry a handgun for seven days as long as the person has a copy of the order in the person’s possession. Senate Bill 983, sponsored by Senator Dolores Gresham (R-Somerville), aims to provide victims with the ability to protect themselves immediately as the process for obtaining a handgun permit can take weeks or months to obtain. During the seven-day period, the person is authorized to apply with the Department of Safety for a temporary handgun carry permit. The temporary handgun carry permit may be issued as a letter to the applicant.
Juvenile justice reform bills advance in State Senate
The Senate Education Committee approved legislation this week that is designed to take a creative and innovative approach to addressing truancy in Tennessee. Truancy is the most frequent reason given for schools referring juveniles to court. The legislation emphasizes the need for a shift toward a therapeutic rather than a correctional approach as the most effective means to reduce the rate of delinquency and to provide positive outcomes for students.
Senate Bill 196, sponsored by Senator Doug Overbey (R-Maryville), establishes a progressive truancy intervention program for students in K-12 schools. The goal of the program is to create mentorship-type relationship between a designated school representative and child and parent in an opportunity to focus on attendance prior to it becoming a juvenile court issue.
The legislation requires that the schools notify parents at the beginning of the school year in writing regarding their attendance policy. After three unexcused absences, the student and parent are pulled into a conference with a school representative to address the absences and to implement the first tier of the progressive truancy intervention. An agreement is then signed by the student, parent and school representative, including the school’s attendance expectations for the child and penalties for additional absences.
Two additional tiers of interventions would be applied if the student accumulates additional unexcused absences in violation of the attendance contract. At least one tier must include an individualized assessment regarding the reasons for the absence, and if necessary, referral to the child to counseling, community-based services or other services aimed at addressing the student’s attendance problems.
The bill is also designed to ensure that the intervention program is tracked to monitor its success.
Likewise, the Senate Judiciary Committee approved four bills, sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville) addressing juvenile justice reform. The legislation reconstructs the state’s current system to provide a more hopeful future for adolescents who come through the juvenile justice system, while balancing the need for public safety.
Senate Bill 1243 lowers the age of eligibility for expungement of non-violent offenders from 18 to 17 in order to allow adolescents the ability to start the process sooner. Through this legislation these children would be prepared to enter post-secondary education and the workforce with a clean record.
To further enhance education and provide information to juveniles, Senate Bill 1244 addresses the issue of courts notifying juveniles of the need to file a motion to begin the process of expungement. Through this bill, the administrative office of the courts will create a form that can be used by the children themselves.
“If you rehabilitate these nonviolent offenders at an early age, and they want to get right with life and get back on the right track, then expungement is really the key to success for them,” said Senator Norris.
The current cost that accompanies filing a petition for expungement is $350. “We’ve learned anecdotally that this is a heavy lift for some people to exceed,” Norris continued. Through Senate Bill 1245, the cost of expungement would be reduced to $180 to provide a more affordable fee.
Finally, Senate Bill 1253 outlines scenarios that are taken into consideration when an adolescent files for expungement. In addition, this measure would create a process to expunge cases that are disposed by pretrial or judicial diversion after successfully completing one year of the court’s expungement conditions. However, a motion could be made prior to the one year period but would still require the court to find a successful completion so long as conditions are still met, and the court believes expungement serves the best interest of the child and the community.
State Senators approve bills aiding the families of law enforcement officers and emergency responders
The Senate State and Local Government Committee approved two bills this week aiding the families of law enforcement officers who are killed in the line of duty. Senate Bill 1059, sponsored by Senator Janice Bowling (R-Tullahoma), calls for a $250,000 death benefit from the State of Tennessee for any firefighter, volunteer rescue worker, or law enforcement officer who is killed in the line of duty. The Helping Emergency Response Officials (HERO) Act would significantly increase the current lump sum of $25,000 paid at the time of death to a $250,000 annuity with the first responder’s estate receiving annual installments of $50,000 per year.
“This legislation calls for something that no one wants to have, a death benefit to the hero’s family should the first responder be killed in the line of duty,” said Senator Bowling. “These families have lost more than a loved one. They’ve lost income that the individual was providing to that family. This legislation will provide them more time and resources to stabilize their family after the tragic loss.”
Knoxville Police Chief David Rausch testified in favor of the bill saying, “For too many years in Tennessee we have overlooked the families of those first responders who have paid the ultimate sacrifice in the line of duty. These heroes run toward danger when others run away… While we can never repay the debt that they create through their actions, we can address the challenge that the family will be burdened with due to their loss.”
The second bill authorizes the State Insurance Committee to offer or continue to provide health insurance benefits to the surviving spouse and children of a first responder killed in the line of duty. Under Senate Bill 822, sponsored by Deputy Speaker Ferrell Haile (R-Gallatin), the first responder’s family and unborn child may receive health insurance benefits from the employing agency for up to two years.
“A community’s loss of a first responder is certainly tragic, and the uncertainty that faces the family can be paramount,” said Senator Haile. “What this bill allows is that the state would reimburse local government that provides health insurance benefits according to this section.”
Finally, the State Senate voted unanimously this week to designate May 14-20, 2017, as Police Memorial Week. Senate Joint Resolution 115, sponsored by Senator Paul Bailey (R-Sparta), was introduced to “honor the brave and valiant service rendered by the many law enforcement officers through Tennessee.”
Bailey said, “When one of our law enforcement officers doesn’t make it home to his or her family, we owe them a perpetual debt of gratitude and remembrance. By pausing for a statewide remembrance, we will give our fallen law enforcement officers the prayerful respect and dignity that they so deserve.”
Legislation approved by the Senate Transportation and Safety Committee increases penalties for texting while driving
The full Senate approved legislation, sponsored by Speaker Pro Tempore Jim Tracy (R-Shelbyville), this week which increases the penalties for texting while driving. In Tennessee, cell phone use while driving has caused 10 times the amount of fatalities than the national average. Despite educating the public regarding the dangers, 77 percent of young adults are confident that they can safely text while driving, and 55 percent of young adults claim that it is a relatively easy task.
Presently, the law states that the charge for transmitting or reading text messages while driving is a Class C misdemeanor with fines not to exceed $50.00 and court costs not to exceed $10.00. In addition, first offense drivers must attend and complete a driver education course.
Senate bill 658 would increase the criminal classification of the offense of texting while driving to a Class B misdemeanor if the accident directly results in a serious bodily injury and would make it a Class A misdemeanor if the accident directly results in a fatality.
“This bill increases the criminal classification for an accident resulting in serious injury or death where the act of texting and driving at the time of the incident is provable,” said Speaker Tracy. “We are taking a small step forward in transforming the safety of Tennessee roadways and saving the lives of our citizens.”
Senate Health and Welfare Committee approves Bill on work Requirements and SNAP benefits
Legislation prohibiting the use of work waivers for abled-bodied recipients of the state’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits was approved by the Senate Health and Welfare Committee on Wednesday. Senate Bill 505, sponsored by Senate Speaker Pro Tempore Jim Tracy (R-Shelbyville), applies to recipients between ages of 18 and 49 without dependents.
Currently, 85 of the 95 counties in Tennessee offer waivers exempting citizens from fulfilling certain requirements necessary to receive SNAP benefits. These requirements include working 20 hours per week, volunteering for an approved charitable organization for 20 hours per week, or attending a school or job training program.
“The unemployment rate is under five percent statewide,” said Senator Tracy, “Taxpayers should not foot the bill for able-bodied recipients who are not trying to gain employment. We need to make sure that the recipients who are able to work are looking for employment, attending a job training program or fulfilling the other requirements in order to receive SNAP benefits. This bill gives us the ability to remove waivers enacted 10 years ago to ensure that this is done.”
Waivers are typically offered to counties which meet several criteria and have a relatively high unemployment rate; however, only a handful of counties meet these requirements. The state’s Department of Human Services is looking to eliminate the work waivers as unemployment rates in Tennessee decrease.
Legislation aims to improve teacher education programs in Tennessee
As Tennessee emerges as a national leader in education improvements, legislators are creating innovative ways to further the educational advances that the state of Tennessee is making. One piece of legislation which aims to aid in this endeavor is Senate Bill 614, sponsored by Senate Finance Committee Chairman Bo Watson (R-Chattanooga), which was unanimously approved by the full Senate on Thursday.
Research shows that teachers have the most impact of any in-school factor on student achievement. The bill recognizes the impact that teacher education in Tennessee’s colleges and universities has on K-12 students.
“Our higher education teacher’s programs are collaborative in our educational success,” said Senator Watson. “The way teachers are prepared has important consequences for the academic growth of our state’s students. This legislation aims to move the bar further up for Tennessee’s K-12 education to create and maintain the best education system in the U.S.”
The legislation calls for the creation of an environment where higher education teachers engage collaboratively in classroom activities at K-12 level. In addition, the bill requires the State Board of Education to meet annually to coordinate policy on educator preparation, and gives them the authority to review educator preparation programs for non-compliance.
It is hoped that the legislation will close the gap between the higher and K-12 education systems, providing the state with better prepared educators to continue Tennessee’s climb up the national education ranks.
School Fire Drills — In the Senate Education Committee this week, Senator Ed Jackson (R-Jackson) introduced Senate Bill 136 to reduce the number of required evacuation drills in public schools. This bill would decrease the minimum requirement of practice drills to seven drills over a 10-month period. While the first four must be a complete evacuation, the remaining drills may be executed in the classroom by way of review through any means available to the school. The legislation aims to improve the efficiency of these drills without undermining the safety of the children. The bill now goes to the full Senate for final consideration.
Flashing Lights on Front of Vehicles — The full Senate approved legislation this week that prohibits steady-burning and flashing lights on the front of vehicles, except those used by highway maintenance, school buses, law enforcement, emergency personnel, and other such government issued vehicles. The legislation comes after complaints from citizens that the flashing lights cause unwarranted confusion to road users and may allow criminal elements to deceive the public and impersonate the police and other emergency services. Senate Bill 194, sponsored by Senator Doug Overbey (R-Maryville), revises current law so that no vehicle that is equipped with steady-burning lights in the front of the vehicle may display a color other than white, amber, or a combination of the two. In addition, it prohibits any vehicle from being equipped with flashing lights, other than those that are factory installed (emergency vehicles’ flashing lights).
Handgun Training / Military Personnel — This week the State Senate passed Senate Bill 24, sponsored by Senator Mark Green (R-Clarksville), which expanded current law to waive Tennessee’s required handgun carry permit class for active-duty military service members and veterans who have certain military specialties. The specialties include military police, special operations, and Special Forces, due to the intensive firearms training that is required of these soldiers. The bill is sponsored by Senator Mark Green (R-Clarksville).
Maximizing Taxpayer Dollars — Members of the Senate State and Local Government Committee approved legislation this week which creates a Task Force on Government Spending and Accountability. Senate Bill 788, sponsored by Senator Steven Dickerson (R-Nashville), aims to ensure savings of state taxpayer dollars by maximizing performance in state government. In addition to focusing on potential savings and investments, the task force will look at reduction of long-term spending, the cost-effectiveness of government programs and services and whether the various departments and agencies are achieving their desired outcomes. The members are to be composed of citizens who are well-informed on the subject of state finance.
Tennessine — Scientists responsible for the discovery of element 177 on the Periodic Table, and its naming as tennessine, were honored by the Tennessee Senate this week. The scientists included Dr. Robert Grzywacz, Dr. Krzysztof P. Rykaczewski, Dr. James Roberto and Dr. Joseph Hamilton. The discovery of tennessine, along with elements 113, 114, 115, 116 and 118, provides evidence for the long sought “island of stability,” a concept that predicted nearly fifty years ago increased stabilities and much slower rates of decay for superheavy elements with higher numbers of neutrons and protons than those previously known. The presence of tennessine on the Periodic Table is also an affirmation of our state’s standing in the international scientific community” as well as the knowledge and expertise of Tennessee’s scientists and technicians. The recognition comes after passage of Senate Joint Resolution 2 earlier this year which pays tribute to the discovery and the efforts of the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Vanderbilt University and the University of Tennessee role in it. The resolution was sponsored by Lt. Governor Randy McNally.
James K. Polk Gravesite — Legislation which supports the relocation of President James K. Polk’s tomb from the State Capitol grounds to the President James K. Polk Home and Museum State Historic Site in Columbia, Tennessee, was given final approval this week. Senate Joint Resolution 141, sponsored by Senator Joey Hensley (R-Hohenwald), aims to make the gravesite more accessible and bring better recognition to the 11th President of the U.S., who was one of only three Tennesseans ever to hold the nation’s highest office. The action to move the tomb to the state-owned site in Columbia is supported by the James K. Polk Memorial Association who requested the relocation. Both of Tennessee’s other presidents, President Andrew Johnson and President Andrew Jackson, are buried on land they owned. Polk had requested burial at his home, Polk Place, which no longer stands. The James K. Polk Home and Museum State Historic Site in Columbia was Polk’s only other residence, besides his residency at the White House. Senate passage of the resolution is part of a multi-step process before relocation can occur with the next step being approval by Tennessee’s Historical Commission.
Domestic Violence Offenders / Firearm Prohibition Notice — The full Senate approved a bill on Monday ensuring that domestic violence offenders have indisputable notice regarding the prohibition from owning or possessing a firearm. Defendants who have been convicted of a domestic violence misdemeanor are prohibited from owning or possessing a firearm under both U.S. and Tennessee laws. Although this fact is verbally communicated to the defendant upon entering a guilty plea, the notice provided is deficient when compared to the information provided to respondents in Order of Protection cases. Senate Bill 229, sponsored by Senator Becky Massey (R-Knoxville), uses the procedure that already exists for Orders of Protection to ensure that every convicted offender receives and completes a form that further informs the defendant about firearm restrictions and when and how to dispossess firearms. Offenders with a history of domestic violence are five times more likely to murder an intimate partner when a firearm is present in the home.
Jail Overcrowding — Legislation which creates a task force to study the best practices and new approaches to the management and coordination of local correctional facilities was approved by the full Senate this week. The bill is sponsored by Senator Ken Yager (R-Kingston) and Senator Janice Bowling (R-Tullahoma). Senate Bill 708, called the “Comprehensive Local Correctional Enforcement Task Force Act,” seeks to find solutions to the serious overcrowding in local jails. The goals of the task force will be to enhance overall operations of the criminal justice system at the local government level, to ensure that taxpayer money invested in local correctional facilities is used wisely and efficiently, to ensure that the rights of individuals involved in local correctional facilities are protected, and to ensure that such individuals are directed or diverted into appropriate programs that will best protect public safety, reduce recidivism, and provide the best likelihood for those individuals to become productive citizens. The task force must examine the challenges raised by individuals dealing with mental illness or substance abuse problems who may become involved with local law enforcement or correctional facilities.
Equal Justice / Drug Offenses – The full State Senate voted this week to clarify that state drug laws preempt local ordinances in determining the appropriate sanction for drug offenses. Senate Bill 894, sponsored by Senator Jack Johnson (R-Franklin), follows ordinances introduced in two cities in Tennessee that ease marijuana charges. The purpose is to uphold Tennessee’s drug laws and apply justice equally in different localities in the state, regardless if the officer making the stop is employed by a city, county or state law enforcement agency. The legislation now goes to the governor for his signature.
STRONG ACT – The Senate Finance Committee approved and sent to the Senate floor for final consideration the STRONG (Support, Training, and Renewing Opportunity for National Guardsmen) Act. Senate Bill 1216 creates a pilot program to provide eligible members of the Tennessee National Guard funding toward a first time bachelor’s degree through a tuition reimbursement program. All but four states nationwide, and all states adjacent to Tennessee, already offer 100% state tuition assistance for those who are serving in the Guard. The bill is sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville).
Broadband – The Tennessee Broadband Accessibility Act to expand broadband services in Tennessee is headed to the Senate floor for a final vote after receiving approval by Senate Finance Committee. Senate Bill 1215 calls for a three-year investment of $45 million in grants and tax credits that focus on the state’s unserved areas. This includes a $30 million “Broadband Accessibility Grant Program” and $15 million in tax credits to private service providers based on the purchase of broadband equipment used to provide access in the most economically challenged counties. On deregulation, the proposal permits the state’s private, nonprofit electric co-operatives to provide broadband and cable video services. The co-ops are currently restricted from providing retail broadband services. To protect co-op ratepayers, the legislation prevents the use of electric system assets to subsidize broadband services. Tennessee currently ranks 29th in the U.S. for broadband access, with 13 percent of the state lacking accessibility. The bill is sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville) and Senate Government Operations Committee Chairman Mike Bell (R-Riceville).