Legislative update


There has been multiple pieces of legislation moving its way through the legislative process this week, especially one of my bills “Henry’s Law”.

Senate Judiciary approves Henry’s Law stiffening penalties against drug dealers who kill minors

Drug dealers or others who unlawfully distribute Schedule I or II drugs to minors will be facing more jail time when it results in a death, under legislation passed by the Senate Judiciary Committee this week. Senate Bill 1875, sponsored by Senator Becky Massey (R-Knoxville) and Lt. Governor Randy McNally (R-Oak Ridge) called “Henry’s Law” for a Knoxville teenager, Henry Granju, who died due to a lethal opiate overdose.

“This case was tragic,” said Senator Massey. “Those who pedal drugs to our youth should face greater consequences and this bill ensures that these predators who kill will serve more time behind bars.”

The killing of a minor in Tennessee where a drug is a proximate cause of death is second degree murder, which is a Class A felony. Under current state sentencing guidelines, a Class A felony has a 15 to 25 years sentence, there is however a 30% requirement that makes the actual sentence 4.5 to 7.5 years. Henry’s Law will continue to make it a Class A felony but a Range II offense, this would be 25 to 40 years behind bars with a 35% requirement. This means offenders would serve a minimum of 8.8 to 14 years in jail. Schedule I drugs include heroin and other psychedelics, while Schedule II drugs include opiates, cocaine, methadone, methamphetamines and amphetamines.

Henry’s mother, Katie Allison, and his aunt, Betsy Tant, told members of the Judiciary Committee about the importance of this bill to save other families from suffering the same fate as Henry.

“Clearly, this opioid epidemic is hitting our kids hard,” said Allison. “And there are adults out there, unfortunately, who would prey on the vulnerability and poor decision-making that many adolescents show. They try to cultivate new customers and, in doing so, kill them instead. The reason we believe it is important for our state criminal code to attach an enhanced sentencing range to second degree homicide is because currently we don’t hold those who prey on our children with these horrible opiate drugs fully accountable for the damage and death they are bringing to this state.”

Approximately 70 to 80 juveniles die each year in the state of Tennessee from an opioid overdose, nationally that rate is 7.2% in just the last year.

“I greatly appreciate Senator Massey’s work on this legislation and the compelling testimony of Katie Allison and Betsy Tant,” said Lt. Governor Randy McNally (R-Oak Ridge). “Henry’s death was a true tragedy. Increasing the penalty for these crimes will go a long way towards preventing more Tennessee families from having to go through what Henry’s family has gone through. It is time to institute real justice for victims in these cases.”

Allison and Tant started a nonprofit called Henry’s Fund, in order to provide meaningful assistance in paying addiction treatment costs for young people aged 12 to 20. Their mission is to help young people recover from addiction, regardless of income or insurance status. They also work on educating teens and parents about the dangers of drugs and to remove the stigma associated with addiction and recovery.

The bill now goes to the Senate Finance, Ways and Means Committee for consideration.

Katie Allison and Betsy Tant met with Rep. Zachary and myself before testifying on Henry’s Law

Reentry Incentive Grant program approved by Senate State and Local Government Committee aims to reduce recidivism in Tennessee jails

Legislation calling for an innovative pilot program to provide grants to local county sheriffs or probation departments that are successful in reducing recidivism was approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee this week. Senate Bill 1865 would provide $2 million in grants to fund a three-year successful reentry program in four Tennessee counties.

Each year, about 5,000 Tennesseans leave prisons in the state after serving for crimes they have committed. The goal of the pilot program is to identify and formulate better policies that can be scaled statewide to reduce recidivism, make communities safer, and save taxpayer money.

Governor Bill Haslam’s Task Force on Sentencing and Recidivism found that 46% of people released from prison or jail in Tennessee were incarcerated again within three years. Tennessee’s felon inmate population has grown by 11.7% over the past five years.

The bill now goes to the Senate Finance, Ways and Means Committee for consideration.

Legislation benefitting veterans receives final Senate approval

Four bills benefitting veterans received final Senate approval on Thursday. This includes passage of Senate Bill 1675 to ensure that disabled veterans can continue to qualify for property tax relief if they are hospitalized or temporarily placed in a nursing home but intend to return home.

The full Senate also approved Senate Bill 1927 calling for at least one military veteran or individual with military expertise to be placed on the Tennessee Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services Planning and Policy Council. Veterans benefit from a variety of services delivered by the department. The council is currently made up of mental health and substance abuse service providers, consumers and family members.

In addition, State Senators voted to approve Senate Bill 1688 that prohibits political parties from disqualifying an honorably discharged veteran as a candidate for any elected office based on the number of times he or she voted preceding the election.

Finally, the full Senate approved Senate Bill 10 which exempts disabled veterans who receive a modified vehicle from the Veteran’s Administration (VA) due to a severe disability from having to pay sales tax or a registration fee on that vehicle.

All four bills were recommended by the General Assembly’s Veterans Caucus.

Issues in Brief

Settlement funds to go for elderly services- Tennessee Commission on Aging and Disability Executive Director Jim Shulman told lawmakers on the Senate Health and Welfare Committee this week that charities serving the elderly will benefit from $36 million provided by the settlement of nursing home litigation. The final order issued by the court means non-government funds will go to major statewide initiatives serving elderly Tennesseans in four areas: affordable housing, transportation, dental and legal assistance. The commission will provide administrative support to help make the court’s orders happen. The funds have the potential to help over 85,000 older Tennesseans in the next three years in counties in all parts of the state.

Prisoners / Occupational Licenses- A press conference was held on Monday to announce legislation which helps ensure Tennessee’s occupational licensing does not keep offenders who have served their time in jail from obtaining employment and getting a fresh start in life. Senate Bill 2465 would reduce barriers to entering a profession by only allowing state licensing boards to deny licenses for past crimes that are directly related to the job sought excluding certain felonies. It provides that if a licensing board denies someone a license for a past crime, the board must consider the nature and seriousness of the crime, the passage of time since the crime was committed, and the relationship between the crime and the license sought, among other factors. It also allows applicants for licenses to petition a state licensing board upfront to determine whether a past crime will disqualify them from obtaining a license. Tennessee requires a license for 110 different jobs, many impacting blue collar jobs. Almost every state licensing board can deny a license to do a job based off a past criminal record, including low-level misdemeanor crimes.

Marketplace Contractors- The full Senate approved legislation this week which provides clarity in Tennessee law that independent marketplace contractors who enter into an agreement with a marketplace platform are not the platform’s employees. A marketplace contractor is an individual that enters into an agreement with a marketplace platform, like Handy or TAKL, to use the platform’s online application or website to be given an assignment or be connected with individuals seeking their services. Such platform services have been called the “want ads” of the Internet. Tennessee has been a leader in the support of innovative technology within business. Senate Bill 1967 continues that effort, by keeping state law up to date with the growth of the gigabyte economy.

Cell Phones in Prisons- A resolution which seeks to address the public safety threat posed by contraband cell phone use by prison inmates has met final approval in the State Senate. Senate Joint Resolution 492 asks the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), major cellular providers, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) “to take a proactive and collaborative approach, in conjunction with correctional officials nationwide, to effectively disrupt the use of contraband wireless communication devices obtained by inmates.” There were over 1,500 incidents with cell phones in Tennessee prisons last year. Cell phones have been used by prisoners to stalk victims, threaten witnesses, arrange the murder of our correctional officers, or to continue gang activity or criminal enterprises – all from behind bars. The resolution now goes to the House of Representatives for their approval.

Recovery Schools- The full Senate gave final approval to legislation which authorizes Local Education Agencies (LEA) to create recovery high schools for certain students with alcohol or drug abuse dependency like Substance Use Disorder (SUD) or Major Depressive Episode (MDE). Senate Bill 1626authorizes LEAs that open recovery schools to enroll eligible students, including those who are in another county. It will also allow LEAs to collaborate with other school districts to establish a school to serve their students. Introduction into a recovery high school would be voluntary under the bill. Research shows students who attend treatment and go back into their normal high school have about a 70 % chance of relapse.

Individuals with Disabilities- The Senate voted unanimously this week in favor of legislation of which I am the sponsor to help persons with disabilities have as much independence in their decision-making as possible when a court is considering conservatorships or other actions to protect their best interest. Senate Bill 264 defines “least restrictive alternatives,” a term which is already in Tennessee law, as “techniques and processes that preserve as many decision-making rights as possible for the person with a disability.” Defining it in law ensures that all parties – families, attorneys, judges, educators, health care practitioners, and others – recognize it is not the only option for many of those who have disabilities. This legislation helps to ensure that when a conservatorship is pursued, it is, in fact, the least restrictive alternative for that person as required under current law. Research supports that when people are empowered to make their own decisions, to the maximum extent possible, they are better able to recognize abusive situations and surround themselves with healthy relationships.