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PLN associate editor quoted in article re tough-on-crime bills in TN

Tennessean, Jan. 1, 2012. http://www.tennessean.com/article/20120106/NEWS...
PLN associate editor quoted in article re tough-on-crime bills in TN - Tennessean 2012

Gov. Haslam's broad plan to lower crime focuses on prevention
Multi-pronged plan aims to make Tennessee's crime rate plummet

2:55 AM, Jan. 6, 2012

Citing Tennessee’s record of higher-than-average crime, Gov. Bill Haslam on Thursday released a plan to increase penalties for certain violent crimes, tamp down on drug offenses and revamp how felons are supervised in the state.

"While we’ve seen an improvement, Tennessee continues to have a violent crime rate that’s above the national average and that none of us find acceptable," Haslam said. "This plan not only addresses many of the underlying factors that lead to crime in our state, it takes a comprehensive approach to addressing public safety issues."

The plan focuses on three broad areas: reducing prescription and methamphetamine drug abuse, decreasing violent crime and cutting the rate at which criminals commit new crimes. It aims to do so through new legislation calling for tougher penalties for gang and drug-related crimes, new administrative moves, an increasing reliance on alternatives to prison and the shifting of some 66,000 felons from the Tennessee Board of Probation and Parole to the Department of Correction.

Haslam couldn’t provide the total cost of the measures, but said that other than about $6 million needed to accommodate new inmates from the expected tougher punishments, the costs would be minimal and would come out of his next proposed budget. His administration also projects that those costs could be recouped down the line by savings from shifting some non-violent drug offenders from prison to county drug treatment programs, which typically cost about half of what it does to incarcerate a person.

Haslam said that the measures were voted on unanimously by the 11 agencies that gave input. But the measures aren’t without their critics already. Defense attorneys worry that mandatory minimum sentences give a "one-size-fits-all approach" to crimes that are often very unique and nuanced, laws designed to tamp down on gangs could rope in groups of friends that don’t resemble gangs. And some of the changes could pass new expenses along to county jails, which would have to accommodate more domestic violence offenders.

Abusers targeted

One of the chief measures Haslam discussed was a plan to tackle domestic violence. He cited an October study that ranked Tennessee 5th in the nation in the rate its women are murdered by men. His administration is proposing mandatory minimum sentences of 45 days in jail for a second domestic violence conviction, 120 days for three or more.

“I think it’s important for a judge to be able to say to a domestic violence offender, ‘If you do this again and you’re convicted, you’re facing mandatory time, you’re not looking at probation,’ ” said Bill Gibbons, commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Safety & Homeland Security. “That’s an important message to send.”

Verna Wyatt, executive director of the victim advocacy group You Have the Power, applauded the proposal.

“When you talk about domestic violence, it’s so prevalent and the offender needs to realize they’re not going to just be in jail overnight if they continue that behavior,” she said. “It gives that more credibility, puts more teeth into it.”

However, the change could put a strain on county jails, many of which are already dealing with burgeoning populations. Sumner County Executive Anthony Holt said he supports Haslam’s plan to tackle domestic violence, but worried about their ability to handle more people in their already at-capacity jails.

“Our jails are already overcrowded as it is. We’re at capacity. As we continue to grow, it’s not going to be much longer before we’re going to need to increase capacity,” he said. “If we’re put under any more stress as far as having to spend more money, it makes it a concern of ours. I don’t know how that will translate.”
Guns and gangs

Other proposed measures include increasing penalties for felons with guns and gang-related crimes and reducing the rate at which criminals commit new crimes.

Gibbons said legislation would be filed to increase penalties for groups of three or more people who commit crimes as a way to battle gangs. Specific crimes that would have enhanced penalties would be aggravated assaults, robberies and aggravated burglaries — crimes often associated with criminal gangs.

Similar laws have been passed in states like Florida, but have proved controversial. Alex Friedman, associate editor of Prison Legal News, which focuses on offenders and incarceration, said that it’s possible for people to be labeled gangs that clearly are not gangs.

“That’s always very popular,” he said of the strategy. “The problem is depending how the law is worded, if you have a group of boy scouts break into a garage, they can be prosecuted as a gang depending on the language of the statute.”

Nashville defense attorney Tommy Overton agreed. He said that a measure to increase state penalties for felons with guns was puzzling, particularly since federal prosecutors often handle such cases with far harsher penalties. Federal inmates, unlike state inmates, also are not eligible for early release on parole.

"It’s probably going to decrease sentences for more felons with guns because they’ll start getting prosecuted in state court than federal court," he said.

Pill abuse

The governor also hopes to improve state databases to track prescription drug abusers and buyers of pseudoephedrine, the key ingredient in methamphetamines; develop a cost-effective system for cleaning up noxious meth houses; better train state troopers on drug interdiction; continue a new anti-meth campaign and shift non-violent drug offenders from prison to local drug court programs.

The latter initiative drew general praise, even from critics of the governor’s plans.

"In general it seems like a good idea as long as there’s sufficient funding for the program," Friedman said, though he worried that violent drug offenders, who were often those in most need of treatment, would be, "filtered out."

Wyatt also praised the plan, saying she’s worked with offenders who have successfully completed Davidson County’s highly touted drug court program.

"I think it’s probably a lot cheaper" than prison, she said. "And for the human being who is acting out because their behavior is driven by their addiction, they can get their addiction under control."

Indeed, the state estimates that Davidson County’s drug court costs about $35 per day, compared to about $65 per day to imprison someone.

Many of these sweeping changes would require legislation in the upcoming session and most won’t be implemented until later this year. And starting July 1, felons will no longer be supervised by the Tennessee Board of Probation and Parole. Instead, supervision duties are being transferred to the Department of Correction, which had actually performed those duties prior to 1999. The actual board members will continue to decide parole issues.

Haslam said the shift would only cost around $10,000 and made sense .

"I think management of that offender, we feel like from the time they first enter the system and as long as they’re on parole, should be with one entity,” he said. “And I think it allows better overall supervision of the process throughout."

Wyatt said she was impressed with the breadth of Haslam’s plan, particularly since it appeared to focus so heavily on crime prevention.

"We need to be focused on that, not just the prosecution and punishment of offenders," she said. "That sounds solid to me. I think it’s great."