April 2, 2009

Legislation cracking down on violent crime advances in State Senate

The Senate Judiciary Committee approved two bills this week to crack down on violent crime in Tennessee. Tennessee ranks second in the nation in the number of violent crimes. Sixty-seven percent of those convicted of violent crimes are re-arrested within three years of being released from prison. The recidivism rate increases to 80 percent when you move past that three-year marker.

One bill, SB 672, adds attempted first degree murder to the “Crooks with Guns” law. The original “Crooks with Guns” legislation made it an additional offense to be armed with a firearm when committing a list of dangerous felonies like aggravated and especially aggravated kidnapping, burglary, stalking, carjacking, voluntary manslaughter, and certain drug crimes.

The bill would add a minimum of three years to the sentence of a violator who possesses a firearm during the commission of attempted first-degree murder, to be served after the underlying offense. If a violator possesses a firearm during the commission of the attempted first-degree murder and has a prior felony conviction, then a mandatory minimum of five years would be added to the sentence.

In addition, if a violator possesses a firearm during the commission or an attempt to commit a dangerous felony or attempting to escape, then a mandatory minimum of six years is added to the sentence to be served after the underlying offense. A prior felony conviction from this would add 10 years onto the sentence.

The second bill, SB 2115, aims to keep repeat violent criminals convicted of aggravated burglary behind bars longer by counting each felony committed within a 24-hour period as a separate offense.

Under current law, with few exceptions, felonies committed within a 24-hour period constitute one conviction for the purpose of determining prior convictions by the court. This bill requires all aggravated burglaries a defendant commits within a 24-hour period to be counted as separate prior convictions for purposes of determining whether the defendant is a multiple, persistent, or career offender under the Criminal Sentencing Reform Act.

The Committee delayed until next week a vote on legislation calling for those convicted of robbery to serve more of their sentences in jail. Under the bill, SB 673, if an offender has a previous conviction for a “dangerous felony” under the Crooks with Guns law and commits aggravated robbery with a firearm, the offender would be required to serve 75% of the sentence imposed and sentence credits may not reduce the sentence by more than 25%. That bill also requires that if an offender has a prior felony conviction and commits aggravated robbery with a firearm, the offender must serve 60% of the sentence imposed and sentence credits may not reduce the sentence by more than 40%.

Besides the pain and suffering caused to victims of crime and the cost of apprehending and prosecuting repeat violent offenders, each year Shelby County alone spends approximately $25 million in taxpayer money to treat gunshot wounds at The Regional Medical Center. The bill will face its biggest hurdle in the next step of the legislative process, the Senate Finance Committee, due to the cost of imprisonment. Governor Phil Bredesen did not include the safety initiative in his budget.

Legislation would strengthen Tennessee’s child abuse laws

Nationwide four kids die everyday from child abuse, a reality which prompted child advocates across the nation to declare April as Child Abuse Prevention month. In Tennessee, the state’s Department of Children’s Services responds to 37,000 reports of child abuse or neglect annually. This is one of the reasons that Tennessee ranked 42nd out of 50 states last year for overall well-being for children.

The Tennessee General Assembly has made improvements to the state’s child abuse laws over the last several years. Legislation approved this week in the State Senate continues those efforts by giving prosecutors the tools they need successfully to prosecute this horrible crime and end what too often becomes a cycle of violence. One such bill, SB 866, would define “serious bodily injury” in cases of child abuse.

Currently, there is a lack of clear definition for the types of serious bodily injuries typically seen in child abuse, leaving the law open to the same interpretation applied to cases involving adults. Virtually all blunt head trauma to children, especially very young children, involves forces that have a high likelihood for causing permanent injury. However, many times these injuries show up later as a result of no medical intervention being taken at the time of the abuse.

Very young children often cannot describe pain associated with a child abuse injury. For example, a child may have evidence of bleeding on the brain from being shaken but may not show serious neurological impairment upon a general medical evaluation. Similarly fracture injuries to children often result in no medical intervention. Arguments have been made by the defense that such injuries do not constitute serious bodily injury because no treatment was required or that it did not affect the child’s mobility.

This legislation adds specificity to what constitutes serious bodily injury in children, including second or third degree burns, a fracture of any bone, a concussion, subdural or subarachnoid bleeding, retinal hemorrhage, cerebral edema, brain contusion, injuries to the skin that involve severe bruising or the likelihood of permanent or protracted disfigurement sustained by whipping children with objects.

Similarly, SB 810, which was approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee this week, clarifies the meaning of near fatality to allow the state to track the number of serious or critical medical conditions that result from child abuse or child sexual abuse. Federal legislation calls for the tracking of near fatalities in child abuse cases for reporting purposes. This legislation adopts that language defining near fatality as a “serious medical condition or injury as reported by a physician” so that there is full disclosure.

Another bill, SB 867, which was approved by the full Senate on Monday, also seeks to strengthen Tennessee’s child abuse laws by adding definitions to give prosecutors more tools to put abusers in jail. Currently, there is no definition for what constitutes a “dangerous instrumentality” in a child abuse case. This can leave interpretation open to weapons generally used in adult cases like a gun or knife, despite the fact a young child can be seriously injured with objects like an extension cord. This legislation provides a definition for dangerous instrumentality that includes any item capable of producing serious bodily injury to a child.

Finally, legislation advanced in the Senate Judiciary Committee to allow videotaped interviews of abused children conducted by a forensic interviewer to be admissible in court. Currently any time a charge of child sexual abuse comes up, the child is brought to a Child Advocacy Center to be interviewed on videotape by a forensic interviewer, a licensed professional who is trained to question children regarding the nature of the alleged abuse. This bill, SB 312, defines forensic interviewer and the circumstances upon which those tapes would be admissible in a court of law.

Market Regulation Act of 2009 would modernize state’s telecommunications law

The Senate Commerce, Labor and Agriculture Committee approved legislation this week to modernize state telecommunications policy and promote more competition and choice for Tennessee consumers. The legislation allows existing traditional telephone providers to opt into “Market Regulation” so they will be treated on the same terms as their competitors in the cable, wireless and Internet telephone companies.

When Tennessee lawmakers rewrote the state’s telecommunications law in 1995, they retained regulations on existing telephone providers. Since then, new telecommunications companies have emerged using technologies that did not exist when the law was written and that are not under the same regulations as traditional phone companies.

Under this proposal, called the Market Regulation Act of 2009, the TRA will continue to regulate wholesale telecommunications in Tennessee for market regulated companies. It also keeps in place government support programs such as the Lifeline to assist seniors and low income consumers. Consumers would continue to have a variety of alternatives for resolving complaints regarding phone rates. However, sponsors feel that the increased competition will keep companies from raising rates as they vie to attract and retain customers. In addition, it includes language to assure there will be no rate hikes in rural areas for at least one year.

Similar market regulation legislation has passed in other states, including Alabama, Mississippi, Indiana and Missouri. Legislation is also currently pending in South Carolina.

Voter Integrity bill approved in Senate State and Local Government Committee

Legislation protecting the integrity of elections in Tennessee was approved by the Senate State and Local Government Committee after the bill was sent back to committee members for further review. That bill requires voters to provide photo identification to guard against fraud and assure only U.S. citizens vote.

The bill, SB 150, provides for various forms of photo identification to be used including a driver’s license, military identification, a valid passport, government employee identification cards, and any federal and state-issued identification cards that contain a photograph of the voter. The legislation does not apply to those in nursing homes. It also allows for those who are indigent to sign an affidavit swearing their status as an eligible voter. In addition, the bill provides for a “provisional ballot” which would only be counted if the election counting board is able to verify current and valid identification of the voter within three days.

Seven states require a photograph be shown to prove identification, including neighboring states Georgia, Florida, and Louisiana. The voter integrity legislation has been approved for the past several years in Tennessee’s State Senate but has failed in the House of Representatives along party lines with Democrats opposing the bill.

Bills addressing illegal immigration are approved in State Senate

Several bills addressing illegal immigration were approved on the Senate floor and in committees this week. Senate Republicans have a series of bills to continue the fight for common-sense illegal immigration reform in Tennessee. This year’s efforts build on action taken by the 105th General Assembly, which included the Memorandum of Understanding law to help state and local police deport illegal aliens, a separate measure ensuring employers receive proper identification before hiring, and a new law cracking down on those who transport illegal aliens into the state.

One of the bills approved this week by the full Senate would clarify that Tennessee employers have a right to institute an English-in-the-workplace policy. The bill, SB 469, makes it clear that an English-in-the-workplace policy is not considered discrimination on the basis of national origin while the employee is engaged in work.

The full Senate also approved a measure that would make it a Class A misdemeanor offense knowingly to provide, transfer or submit a fake identification for the purpose of obtaining or maintaining employment. The measure, SB 294, would make the production or use of each false identification document a separate offense under Tennessee law if it is determined that any person in connection with the violation is not legally present in the United States and require the court to notify the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

Meanwhile, the Senate Transportation Committee approved legislation, SB 11, to require drivers’ license exams be given in English. The measure, which seeks to make sure that immigrants know how to read the road signs, was approved by the State Senate in the last General Assembly but did not win House approval. The bill does have an amendment to allow for the test to be administered in Spanish, Japanese, Korean and German to accommodate those nationalities with plants in Tennessee.

Issues in Brief

Tornado Warning Sirens — The Senate State and Local Government Committee approved legislation to establish a system of communications, or sirens, to ensure that citizens are warned of a developing emergency like a tornado. The bill, SB 88, was brought to the attention of the legislature by two students from St. Mary’s Episcopal School in Memphis, Ana Marinovic and Ellery Ammons, after they researched the matter for a class project. The students told committee members there has been 118 deaths in Tennessee since 1999 as a result of tornados. After surveying Tennessee county emergency officials, the students told lawmakers that 28 counties have no sirens. The bill requires the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency (TEMA) to coordinate with counties to add a certain number of civil defense sirens each year, starting with densely populated areas.

Protection for Community Action Agencies — The full Senate approved legislation this week to add Community Action Agencies to the definition of a governmental entity under the Tennessee’s Governmental Tort Liability Act. The measure, SB 1327, would recognize Community Action Agencies in the same way it does Human Resources Agencies, which are also quasi-governmental agencies that perform the same type of function but do receive protection under Tennessee law. There are 20 community action agencies and six non-profits organizations in Tennessee which served 23,000 families, or 300,000 individuals last year through the Community Service Block Grant Programs and the Head Start Programs in Tennessee.

Troops to Teachers — The State Senate approved legislation this week directing the Department of Education to develop an alternative program for former community college military instructors to obtain a license to teach in Tennessee schools. The legislation, which is modeled after a Florida law, paves the way for those who have served their country to continue to serve their community by teaching in our schools.

Tennessee already receives funding from the U.S. Department of Defense to help with coursework and financial needs for former military service employees to get their teaching credentials. The Department of Education would utilize this legislation, SB 1703, to assist with those efforts.

Wine sales – Legislation that would allow citizens in the state to purchase up to five cases of wine from out-of-state wineries who have a Tennessee license and transport them back across state lines was approved by the full Senate. The legislation, SB 944, would correct the constitutional issues set forth by the federal court case that threatens to end the sale of wine from Tennessee wineries. Wineries are a significant agricultural industry in Tennessee with $139 million in sales in 2007.

Guns / Thumbprint – Several bills advancing Tennesseans’ constitutional rights to bear arms were approved by State Senators this week, including SB 554 that would delete the current requirement for a gun buyer to provide a thumbprint as part of the background check process. Tennessee is the only state in the nation that requires a thumbprint from gun permit applicants. Since the 1998 enactment of Tennessee’s conceal and carry law, the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation has only asked for one thumbprint due to a challenge from a person who was denied the right to purchase a firearm and that print was smudged and unusable.

Guns / Privacy of Information / Safety Course – The Judiciary Committee also approved a measure to clarify that neither the state nor an instructor or employee of a department-approved handgun safety course is authorized to require an applicant for a handgun carry permit to furnish or reveal private identifying information. This includes information regarding any handgun the applicant owns, possesses, or uses during the safety course, or the serial number of the weapon. The bill, SB 32, was filed in response to an incident late last year, when the Department of Safety sent letters to all firearms instructors requiring them to complete and return a roster of students and to provide information on each student including the name of the firearm owner, the name of the student using the firearm, and the make, model, and serial number of firearms used.

Privacy of information / permit holder database – Another gun bill which aims to protect the confidential information of handgun permit holders also advanced after approval by the Senate Judiciary Committee. The proposal, SB 1126, would protect the confidential information by removing the handgun permit holders’ database from provisions of the state’s open records law. Many citizens have been offended by the publication of the database by newspapers and media websites. Permit holders fear criminals will use the information to target their homes to steal weapons, while those who do not own guns are worried about the risk of being identified as a home without a firearm.

Higher Education Structure – The Government Operations Committee considered legislation, SB 1049, this week to extend the Board of Regents until 2016. The panel voted to delay a vote on the legislation, however, until a special review can be held to look at how all three of the state’s higher education governing bodies function. The legislative oversight panel will look at efficiencies and inefficiencies that exist in the systems as well as possible duplications. Legislation has been proposed looking at the possibility of combining the Board of Regents, the University of Tennessee Board of Trustees and the Tennessee Higher Education Commission into one governing board for Tennessee’s public colleges and universities.

Honoring fallen soldiers – Legislation that would honor soldiers who die in the line of duty advanced in the Senate State and Local Government Committee this week. The legislation requires that, if members of the armed forces dies in the line of duty, the Governor shall proclaim a day or mourning in their honor and the names of the deceased members of the armed forces shall be recorded in the journal of the Senate and House of Representatives. The legislation, SB 1647, also requires that the flag be flown at half-mast to honor these soldiers who make the ultimate sacrifice for their state and country.

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