May 2, 2011

Keeping residents safe is one of the fundamental duties of state and local governments.

Without safe neighborhoods, educational initiatives are doomed to failure, businesses will flee and homes will deteriorate.

This session the state Legislature is considering several measures that would increase punishments for certain violent acts ranging from strangulation to shooting into a residence. All would cost the state more money, but in these instances the price of inaction is even greater.

One bill worthy of passage would expand the definition of aggravated assault to include strangulation (the definition of “strangulation” in the bill also includes what is commonly referred to suffocation). Sponsored by state Sen. Jamie Woodson and state Rep. Ryan Haynes, both Knoxville Republicans, the bill would allow prosecution for aggravated assault even if the strangulation doesn’t result in serious bodily injury.

Another bill, sponsored by state Sen. Mark Norris, R-Collierville, and state Rep. Barrett Rich, R-Somerville, would enhance the penalties for drive-by shootings into houses when a deadly weapon is involved. Discharging a firearm into a house or apartment now is a Class E felony. The legislation would boost the crime to a Class C felony when the residence is occupied and a Class D felony when the residence is unoccupied.

Drive-by shootings are particularly heinous because any occupants of the house – including children, the elderly and other unintended targets – could be wounded or killed. In Knoxville, 17-year-old DaChanna Dotson and 66-year-old Lester Walton – neither the intended target – were killed in high-profile drive-by shootings during the past two years. Two men were charged in Dotson’s death, but Walton’s killers remain free.

A third bill lawmakers should pass is one that would increase the penalties for attempted first degree murder, rape and carjacking when three or more people commit those acts together. The bill, also sponsored by Norris and Rich, is aimed at the most violent predators.

“This is street terrorism,” said D. Michael Dunavant, a district attorney general from West Tennessee who is head of the Tennessee Public Safety Coalition. Dunavant said the law will not require that prosecutors prove formal gang affiliation to seek the tougher punishments.

Safe neighborhoods and streets don’t come cheap. Each bill comes with a fiscal note, which outlines the estimated cost to the state if the bill is passed. According to the estimates, the strangulation bill would cost more than $71,500 per inmate. The additional costs to incarcerate drive-by shooters would be nearly $43,300 for a Class C felony and $15,500 for a Class D felony. The “street terrorism” bill would cost more than $1.3 million.

The Public Safety Coalition – made up of the Tennessee District Attorneys General Conference, Tennessee Association of Chiefs of Police and the Tennessee Sheriffs’ Association – supports the Norris-Rich bills.

Locking up criminals for longer periods of time costs more money, but there’s no way to put a price tag on human life and public safety. Justice requires the passage of these bills.


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