Law enforcement coalition pushing crime bill package

Hank Hayes • Mar 13, 2009 at 12:00 AM

KINGSPORT — Law enforcement officials representing the Tennessee Public Safety Coalition are promoting a package of crime bills they believe will improve Tennessee’s number two ranking among violent crime states.

Getting lawmakers to buy in might be a tough sell.

TPSC’s 2009 agenda, shared with Times-News Editorial Board members on Friday, looked like a legislative Hail Mary pass being thrown downfield amid tough economic times and Tennessee’s uncertain budget situation.

“I’m tired of trying to explain the inadequacies,” Knox County District Attorney General Randy Nichols said of the state’s existing criminal justice system. “The people of this state have lost faith in the criminal justice system. ... They think it’s a joke. ... No one wants to serve on a jury now.”

Only South Carolina is ahead of Tennessee in violent crime, TPSC members said.

To turn back the tide of violent crime, TPSC has a five-bill package targeting gang violence, aggravated robbery, gun violence, burglary, and prosecutors overwhelmed by huge caseloads.

The first bill is a reintroduced “street terrorism” measure providing for stiffer penalties for violent crimes committed by groups of three or more.

“We had somehow years ago used the word ‘gang legislation,’ and that scared everybody half to death, so now we’re at street terrorism. (But) it’s basically a gang bill that says if three or more commit violent crime, then the punishment is raised one level in Tennessee,” Nichols said. “I believe everybody here would believe that the upsurge in gang activity has clearly been noted by the police authorities everywhere in this state.”

Increasing punishment for aggravated robbery is the second bill. Currently, the crime is a felony, but offenders usually get out after about two years.

TPSC is asking lawmakers to increase the minimum sentence to 15 years.

“The data clearly indicate these people are to the point they will put a pistol in your face to take your goods,” Nichols said of the bill’s need. “We know this is not their first crime. These are the people who are committing crime after crime after crime.”

A “crooks with guns” bill would enhance jail terms for using or possessing a gun during a crime.

A fourth bill calls for making all aggravated burglaries committed by one individual in a 24-hour period count as separate convictions to increase jail time.

“In Tennessee if some guy goes out and breaks into 10 homes today and commits 10 aggravated burglaries, is captured and convicted, goes to prison, gets paroled, and then goes and commits another aggravated burglary, when it comes to sentencing ... all of those crimes that occurred in the 24-hour period are treated as only one crime for sentencing,” Nichols said. “We know it’s the same people, and they need to be dealt with more harshly. ... It is so serious in Tennessee I have the right to kill you if you break in my home.”

Finally, TPSC wants more prosecutors to deal with a felony caseload that went up double digits in the past two years.

“In 1998 a study said we needed 144 more prosecutors to handle caseloads,” Nichols said. “The legislature gave us 31, and 11 years later we’re still in the hole. ... The lawyers in my office now, we are carrying about 1,012 cases per lawyer. That is obscene. ... The people who are getting cheated are these victims. There is no time to talk to these victims and take care and concern for their needs. ... It’s time for that to change, we think.”

When presenting their crime fighting package, the one reminder TPSC gives lawmakers is the Tennessee Constitution says the state will provide for the peace and safety of its citizens.

“It’s like law enforcement has a wrench in its toolbox, but we don’t have a hammer, and we’re asking for a hammer,” said Shelby County District Attorney General Bill Gibbons.

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