Law and order legislation dominated debate in the State Senate this week as lawmakers considered several of Governor Bill Haslam’s public safety bills. The Judiciary Committee, chaired by Senator Mae Beavers (R-Mt. Juliet), advanced legislation to enact tougher sentences for gun possession by those with prior violent felony convictions and two drug abuse measures, while the State and Local Government Committee approved a bill to realign under the Department of Correction the supervision of adult felony offenders to include probation, parole and community corrections.
The bills were drafted at the recommendation of a Public Safety Subcabinet Working Group composed of more than 10 government agencies which held meetings with over 300 leaders in law enforcement, substance abuse, and corrections. The group developed 11 objectives and 40 action steps in their multi-year safety action plan with the goal of significantly reducing drug abuse and drug trafficking; curbing violent crime; and, lowering the rate of repeat offenders in Tennessee.
Felons with Guns -- Among bills approved was Senate Bill 2250 that would increase from a Class E felony to a Class C felony the punishment for convicted felons carrying a firearm whose crime involved the use of force, violence, or a deadly weapon. The punishment would be a Class D felony for those whose conviction involved a felony drug offense. The purpose of the bill is to give District Attorneys in Tennessee a stronger tool to keep convicted felons, who are prohibited from possessing a firearm, off Tennessee streets.
Gang Violence – The Judiciary Committee also heard testimony regarding Senate Bill 2252 that would enhance penalties for certain crimes committed by groups of three or more people. Shelby County Deputy District Attorney General John Campbell told members of the Judiciary Committee that a person robbed by more than one assailant has a much greater chance of suffering severe injury or death. The bill to keep them behind bars longer bumps up penalties by one classification for aggravated assault, robbery, or aggravated burglary, if the crime is committed in concert with two or more persons. Action on the legislation was deferred until next week at the request of the sponsor.
Corrections -- Senate Bill 2248 was approved by the Senate State and Local Government Committee. The legislation gives the State Department of Corrections the authority to supervise probation and parole services to provide a seamless one person contact for offenders throughout the entire criminal justice system.
This bill was part of the administration’s top to bottom review of departments and agencies conducted last year. The consolidation of these agencies will reduce the competition for providers and allow for continuity of a single point of contact. Forty states operate under a consolidated system, which is widely recognized as a best practice in corrections. The existing organizational structure that actually performs under the Board of Pardons and Paroles will remain intact upon transfer to the Department of Corrections.
Drug Abuse – In other action on the Governor’s public safety legislation, the Senate Judiciary Committee approved legislation clarifying two statutes in Tennessee law dealing with the purchase of amphetamines for the purpose of making meth. Senate Bill 2235 makes it a misdemeanor to “attempt to purchase” and “attempt to sell” amphetamines with the intent to sell it to another for a non-medical use or unlawful purpose, including the manufacture of meth, leaving the felony as the punishment for completing the act.
A second proposal approved by the Judiciary Committee adds numerous opiates, depressants, stimulants, and narcotics to Schedule I through V of the Controlled Substances Schedule. Senate Bill 2230 also adds Tramadol and Carisoprodol to Schedule IV of the Controlled Substances Schedule. A controlled (scheduled) drug is one whose use and distribution is tightly controlled because of the potential for abuse. Controlled drugs are rated in the order of their abuse risk and placed in Schedules by the Federal Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). The drugs with the highest abuse potential are placed in Schedule I, and those with the lowest abuse potential are placed in Schedule V.
Other bills in the Governor’s public safety package, including a major prescription drug abuse bill, will be considered by the General Assembly in the coming weeks.
Issues in Brief
Tennessee Officials / Judicial Diversion -- The Tennessee State Senate gave final approval to legislation which makes state or local officials who have committed a crime during their term of office ineligible for consideration of either pre-trial or judicial diversion. Judicial diversion is the process in criminal law when a person pleads guilty to a crime and can later have the charge removed (or expunged) from their record following a period of probation. Senate Bill 2566 would simply add a criminal offense committed by an official in the executive, legislative or judicial branch to the list of those which are ineligible for judicial diversion, if the crime was committed, in their official capacity or involved the duties of their office.
New “I Hate Meth” law results are promising -- Just released January data collected by the National Precursor Log Exchange (NPLEx) reveals impressive results for Tennessee in blocking unlawful sales of pseudoephedrine (PSE) at the sales counter. Sponsors of the “I Hate Meth” law are touting the results as proof Tennessee is making progress in the fight against meth with legislation passed by the General Assembly last year. NPLEx uses real-time, stop-sale technology to block PSE sales. NPLEx has only been implemented in Tennessee for one month, but the electronic system has successfully blocked the sale of more than 4,993 illegal boxes of PSE, keeping more than 13,000 grams off of Tennessee streets.
Support for Israel – State Senators have approved a resolution expressing strong support for the nation of Israel. Senate Joint Resolution 523 acknowledges a long history of friendship with Israel and its role in democracy in the Middle East. It also states the State of Tennessee recognizes that Israel has a right of self-defense against attacks of terrorism and expresses “strong support and a steadfast commitment to the security, welfare, and survival of the Jewish State of Israel with secure borders.”