Competing Republican and Democratic bills increasing penalties for child rape felonies in Tennessee reached a contentious point with lawmakers on the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday.
Gov. Phil Bredesen's legislative package being moved ahead by House and Senate Democrats includes a version of "Jessica's Law" that increases the penalty for child rape to a minimum 25-year jail term. That bill has been moving ahead in legislative committees.
But state Sen. Diane Black, R-Gallatin, introduced and passed a child rape bill in the Senate only to see it taken off notice in the House Judiciary Committee. Her bill would add child rape and aggravated child rape to felony murder offenses - and elevate the crime to first-degree murder if the child dies. She is the sponsor of at least a half-dozen pieces of legislation targeting sex offenders.
Black let her Senate Judiciary Committee colleagues know she wasn't happy that her child rape bill had stalled.
"My concern is the nature of this bill was offered last year," she told lawmakers. "It was not moved forward. It came back again this year with it moving forward. ... My concern is why is it being held up over in the House? ... This bill is a good bill. ... I think we need to put pressure on the House to go ahead and move that companion to that bill along."
State Sen. Doug Jackson, who presented the Bredesen administration bill to the committee, agreed to defer the matter for one day in hopes of resolving both bills.
"There's no question we have overlapping bills," Jackson, D-Dickson, said. "The governor has made an allocation to fund this bill in the budget, and I think the important thing is we be successful in implementing the law. ... I just think it's important we get it done."
The National Conference of State Legislatures says a number of states are copying the bill named for Jessica Lunsford, a 9-year-old Florida girl killed in 2005 by a registered sex offender who lived nearby. A flood of new laws and legislative proposals attacking sex offenders stands out as a trend sweeping statehouses, but can't be explained by any single development, according to NCSL.
The Bredesen administration child rape bill includes $7.6 million in the governor's proposed budget to pay for incarcerating sex offenders. An average of 64 people have been convicted of child rape in each of the last five years, according to the Administrative Office of the Courts and Department of Correction. Existing law requires lifetime community supervision for people convicted of child rape.
For more about the Bredesen administration's and Sen. Black's child rape bills go to www.legislature.state.tn.us and click on "Legislation." The bills are numbered SB 2235 and SB 1173.