This is the second of a three part re-cap of the legislation passed this year.
Second in a three-part series on the recently-adjourned legislative session reviews actions taken on crime and the courts
The 2018 legislative session of the 110th General Assembly concluded on April 25 headlined by passage of the state budget and legislation to curb opiate abuse, increase job opportunities, enhance education, and protect students and teachers. In this second in a series of three articles regarding key action taken during the recently adjourned session, we will look at legislation approved this year to fight crime, reform Tennessee courts, curb illegal immigration, attack human trafficking, reduce domestic violence and keep firearms from getting into the hands of persons with mental illness.
Juvenile Justice Reform – Among major actions taken by the General Assembly this year was juvenile justice reform legislation which aims to strengthen families and communities in Tennessee, while promoting public safety and providing a more effective use of the state’s limited resources. Misdemeanor offenses, unruly offenses and technical violations make up nearly half of youth in costly out-of-home placements, and many youth in Tennessee are being confined for minor offenses or conduct that would not be crimes for adults. Studies have shown that taking these juveniles out of their homes for minor offenses increases their risk for recidivism and the likelihood that they will enter into the adult criminal justice system. The Juvenile Justice Reform Act of 2018 balances judicial discretion with new guardrails on placing children in out-of-home custody, brings needed investment in treatment and other services, and ensures individualized case planning, among other improvements.
Major legislation was also approved which addresses local jails sending prisoners held for safekeeping to state custody when they think they do not have adequate facilities to house them. The bill calls for judicial review every 30 days for juveniles beginning immediately upon passage, and beginning January 1 for adults. The measure makes it clear that when the jail of a county is insufficient for the safekeeping of a juvenile that he or she can be transferred to the nearest sufficient juvenile detention facility, but removal to the state penitentiary or a branch prison for this purpose is prohibited.
Another bill passed by the General Assembly this year allows Basic Education Program (BEP) funds to “follow the child” when a youth has been ordered by a juvenile court to attend a “state approved” non-public school in their recovery program. Approximately 90 percent of students discharged from these successful prevention and early intervention centers remain out of juvenile court after completion of their program.
Reducing Recidivism – Several bills designed to reduce recidivism were approved by the General Assembly during the 2018 legislative session. This includes implementation of an innovative pilot program to provide grants to local county sheriffs or probation departments that are successful in reducing recidivism. Each year, about 5,000 Tennesseans leave Tennessee prisons after serving time for crimes they have committed, with approximately 46 percent incarcerated again within three years. The program authorized under the legislation will help identify and formulate better policies to make Tennessee’s communities safer that can be scaled throughout the state.
Another measure aiming to reduce recidivism helps ensure that Tennessee’s occupational licensing system does not keep offenders who have served their rime in jail from obtaining employment and getting a fresh start in life. The bill reduces occupational barriers when past crimes are not directly related to the job sought, excluding certain felonies, to help them become productive tax-paying citizens.
A separate bill passed by the General Assembly expands a successful Knox County program which gives indigent defendants an alternative method of paying back their court and litigation taxes in favor of community service. If the defendant completes the program, the clerk submits documentation to the judge who can then clear the fees. If at any point in the program they have failed the requirements, the judge may rescind the defendant’s participation in the program.
Tennessee State Senate-110th General Assembly
Human Trafficking – Legislation was approved this year that builds on the General Assembly’s ongoing efforts to attack the problem of human trafficking in Tennessee. State lawmakers have approved a series of bills over the past seven years addressing the problem after a 2011 Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (TBI) report showed 73 of the state’s 95 counties have reported the crime within their borders. As a result of these legislative efforts, Tennessee was voted the best in the nation last year for its laws intended to prevent child sex trafficking. Among bills approved this year is a measure which makes promoting prostitution punishable as trafficking for a commercial sex act when the victim has an intellectual disability. Another bill approved by lawmakers creates a path for juvenile victims of human trafficking to have their records expunged in order to clear their record and move forward with their lives as productive citizens. Legislation also passed which protects the records of trafficking victims who seek treatment from service providers during their recovery process.
Domestic Violence – The General Assembly took action this year to protect victims of domestic violence, which, like efforts to combat human trafficking, builds on a multi-year effort to help curb the crime. This includes legislation which protects victims of human trafficking, domestic violence, stalking and other crimes from being located by an abuser through public records searches. The Safe at Home program provides victims with a government-managed substitute address for both themselves and their children, which can then be used to obtain a driver’s license, register to vote and complete most other government forms without disclosing the participant’s home address.
Similarly, a separate measure was approved that allows victims of domestic abuse to petition the court to keep the wireless telephone number used primarily by them or their children. Current law provides no mechanism for victims of domestic violence to alter a shared family plan wireless telephone contract when the abuser is the primary account holder and refuses to release the number.
To further keep victims of domestic violence safe, a new law approved during the 2018 legislative session improves upon the Public Safety Act of 2016 by imposing bond conditions on offenders designed to protect domestic violence victims. Another new law passed this year clarifies firearms notification and dispossession for offenders convicted of a misdemeanor domestic assault pursuant to federal and state law, further strengthening last year’s law providing protection for victims. Finally, domestic violence legislation was approved that expands the grounds for termination of parental or guardianship rights to include a parent’s conviction of attempted murder or being found civilly liable for attempting to cause the intentional and wrongful death of the child’s other parent or guardian.
In other bills aiding crime victims, state lawmakers voted to create a new class C felony offense for especially aggravated stalking where an adult defendant is stalking a child who is 12 years of age or less.
The Knox County Delegation
Sexual Offenders – Several bills were approved this year strengthening Tennessee’s law against sex offenders, including one prohibiting a person charged with incest from participating in judicial diversion. According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice, 93 percent of juvenile sexual assault victims know their perpetrator, with 34 percent of the offenders being family members. Another measure passed this year strengthening the state’s sex offender laws creates an exception to the heresay rule in criminal proceeding regarding statements made by young children relative to sexual and physical abuse. It applies to non-testimonial statements made by children under the age of 12 and would be admissible under the ruling of a judge who reviews them in a separate hearing utilizing certain guidelines listed in the legislation to help guarantee trustworthiness. Lawmakers also voted to ensure sex offenders convicted of continuous sexual abuse of a child are listed on the Sex Offender Registry as a violent offender.
Among bills aiming to prevent child sexual abuse is a new law requiring family life education to include age-appropriate instruction on the detection, intervention, prevention and treatment of child sexual abuse. It also allows educators who provide instruction related to child sex abuse to teach without fear of being sued. Another new prevention statute passed this year protects children on Home Owner Association (HOA) playgrounds from sex offenders by placing the sexual offender restriction applied to public playgrounds within 1,000 feet. Finally, a bill passed this year instructs the Tennessee Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations (TACIR) to conduct a study and report back next year on the effectiveness of the state’s statutes of limitations, including crimes involving sexual offenses against children. According to the National Center for Victims Rights, most states have a basic suspension of the statute of limitations for civil actions while a person is a minor.
Firearm Safety / Mental Health Reporting – Two major bills were approved this year to keep firearms out of the hands of individuals who are mentally ill. The first measure requires acute care hospitals to report involuntary commitments in their psychiatric units to law enforcement so that they can be a part of the record used in the verification process for the purchase of firearms. This legislation closes the gap in current law, which already requires mental health hospitals to report these commitments, to ensure existing gun laws are properly enforced.
The second bill creates greater cooperation between the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (TBI) and local authorities in order to prevent those with mental health issues from purchasing firearms. The legislation requires the TBI to notify local law enforcement within 24 hours when they properly identify an individual as having a mental disorder in the NICS ‘Mental Defectives’ Database has attempted to purchase a firearm. The bill also adds new identifying information to the reporting requirements of sheriffs, court clerks, and hospitals to ensure individuals who are adjudicated mentally defective are readily identified.
Illegal Immigration – On illegal immigration, the General Assembly took action to ensure that state and local government entities are prohibited from adopting sanctuary policies, whether they are in written form or not, which shield illegal aliens from state and federal immigration laws. The legislation expands the definition of what a sanctuary city is beyond a written policy in order to ensure cooperation with federal authorities. It also creates a reporting mechanism through chancery court for residents to make a complaint and provides that future economic and community grant money to any Tennessee city that adopts policies which are in violation of this law will be cut off until they are in compliance. Similarly, legislation approved by the General Assembly in the 2018 session prohibits local governments from issuing documents as a form of identification to be used to determine the citizenship, immigration status or residency of a person. This legislation is a preemptive measure to ensure that abuses seen in other cities in the U.S. to issue government identification cards to illegal aliens are not implemented in Tennessee.
To safeguard Tennessee’s driver’s licenses, a new law was approved this year that requires any applicant from a state that issues them to illegal aliens, to establish proof of United States citizenship or legal residency. The bill affects applicants from twelve states which issue a driver’s license to illegal aliens, including California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah, Vermont, and Washington.
In an effort to safeguard the border, lawmakers voted to urge the U.S. Congress to immediately take action to fund the construction of a secure border wall across the nation’s southern border as proposed by President Donald Trump. The resolution states “the members of this General Assembly have consistently taken steps to address illegal immigration within the borders of our great state and now wish to urge the United States Congress to address illegal immigration by supporting President Trump’s border wall proposal.”
Next we will look at welfare reform initiatives, legislation to make government more accountable to taxpayers and less burdensome on the rights of Tennesseans to earn a living, as well as measures passed this year to aid veterans.