House Republicans pass historic criminal justice reform
The Tennessee House of Representatives approved two major criminal justice reform bills this week in Nashville. Both are proposals from Gov. Bill Lee’s legislative package and are part of his efforts to reform criminal justice in Tennessee. The bills reflect changes recommended by the Tennessee Criminal Justice Reinvestment Task Force.
House Bill 784 provides alternatives to incarceration expanding Tennessee’s successful Recovery Court System, which includes Veterans Courts, Mental Health Courts and Drug Courts for those charged with misdemeanor assaults. The measure passed in the House chamber 89 to 1.
The Alternatives to Incarceration bill establishes criteria for revoking community supervision status, updates the permitted amount of time that an individual can be sentenced to probation and limits the ability to revoke supervision for non-criminal violations of conditions, also known as technical violations. This bill also proposes a redesign of the Community Corrections program.
These courts have an excellent track record for individuals who require specialized and highly accountable treatment. House Bill 784 gives judges the discretion to provide treatment for individuals who need it when the facts of their case indicate that a recovery court is the best correction option available.
The Reentry Success Act of 2021 is a multi-pronged approach to help improve public safety and promote positive outcomes for those leaving incarceration. House Bill 785 establishes mandatory supervision, so all individuals exiting state custody will have a minimum of one-year supervised reentry integration. The bill passed unanimously with 90 votes.
House Bill 785 seeks better returns on public safety investments by focusing on community supervision, parole processes, and ensuring oversight for those leaving jail and prison. The bill aims to help facilitate better outcomes once someone returns to their community after incarceration. Currently, 37 percent of the felony population are returning to their communities without oversight.
Other key provisions in the bill include:
- waiving the restricted driver license fee, which research has shown is a barrier to successful reentry
- removing the parole board’s ability to deny parole to a person who has not attempted to improve their education or vocational skills due to long wait lists for these programs
- requiring the Tennessee Department of Correction to pay an accreditation stipend to eligible counties to encourage implementation of evidenced-based reentry programs
- authorizing and encouraging community colleges and Tennessee Colleges of Applied Technology (TCATs) to partner with local governments to provide education workforce development programs for people held in local correction facilities
- granting limited employer liability to businesses who hire a parolee convicted of a non-violent criminal offense
The Senate version of House bills 784 and 785 are expected to be considered for passage next week.
General Assembly approves the Unborn Child Dignity Act
Republicans successfully guided passage of the Unborn Child Dignity Act through both chambers of the Tennessee General Assembly this week in Nashville.
House Bill 1181 advocates for the dignity of the unborn by requiring proper burial or cremation for a surgically aborted child. The legislation grants the same protection, respect and dignity to a deceased, surgically aborted child required by law to any other deceased human being.
House Bill 1181 does not limit or restrict an abortion or access to an abortion. Tennessee law grants guidelines for the disposal of pets and animals, but gives no such dignity to aborted children. The legislation ensures that a surgically aborted child’s body is treated with the same respect as any other human being.
The bill now heads to Gov. Lee’s desk for his signature. Once signed, House Bill 1181 would become law July 1.
Bill banning lawmakers from profiting from public office approved by General Assembly
The General Assembly on Thursday passed legislation prohibiting Tennessee lawmakers from selling services to the legislative branch. House Bill 1040 aligns with existing law related to the sale of goods by state employees, which dates back to the 1950s. At that time, the practice of selling goods was more common than the sale of services. In recent years, the demand for services has steadily increased. This bill places the same prohibitions on the selling of services by state employees to the state that already exist as it relates to the sale of goods, creating a Class E felony penalty moving forward.
House Bill 1040 does not impact existing contracts with local and county governments. This legislation will increase transparency and it will ensure members of our body are not perceived like other elected officials in our country who are deemed to benefit financially from their time in office.
Republicans improve law enforcement use-of-force policies
Legislation that seeks to improve state law enforcement’s use-of-force policies has advanced in the House this week, passing the Criminal Justice Subcommittee on Wednesday.
House Bill 1406 bans chokeholds unless an officer believes deadly force is authorized; requires chokehold training be taught at police academies; requires law enforcement agencies to develop de-escalation policies; requires other officers to intervene in cases of excessive force; prohibits firing at moving vehicles unless the officer believes deadly force is authorized; and prohibits the issuance of “no-knock” warrants.
House Bill 1406 will establish best practices for law enforcement by creating a statewide standard for when and how officers should engage in use of force and will also ensure that the men and women in law enforcement will continue to excel in their role in keeping Tennesseans safe.
Republicans prohibit government from requiring Covid-19 vaccines
Republicans overwhelmingly supported legislation on Wednesday that prohibits state and local governments from forcing citizens to receive Covid-19 vaccinations against their will.
As amended, House Bill 13 prevents a law enforcement agency, governmental entity, or governor or chief executive of a local government from requiring citizens to receive the vaccination against their will. Students of public higher education institutions who are enrolled in medicine, dentistry, pharmacy or another health care profession who may be subject to policies or rules of a private office that delivers health care services are exempt.
House Republicans have long stood for individual freedom over government mandates. This legislation does not deny a person the ability to receive a Covid-19 vaccine, but rather respects an individual’s right to decide for themselves if receiving the vaccine is an appropriate action to take.
The bill now awaits passage in the Senate.
General Assembly approves CTE legislation to prepare students for high-skill, high-wage jobs
The Tennessee General Assembly approved legislation requiring the Department of Education to begin preparing students in middle school grades for a Career Technical Education (CTE) pathway that may align with their career aptitude. House Bill 1446 introduces students to career opportunities that allow them to explore a wide variety of high-skill, high-wage, or in-demand career fields. Current law only encourages such action.
Present law requires local school districts to administer a career aptitude assessment to students in grade seven or grade eight in order to help inform a student’s high school plan of study. This bill adds that, upon administering the assessment, students must be provided with information on CTE opportunities offered by the LEA in which they are eligible to participate.
The bill now heads to the governor’s desk for his signature.
Legislation establishing a Mental Health Trust Fund to meet needs of K-12 students advances
Legislation aimed at addressing the mental health needs of Tennessee’s K-12 students is advancing through House committees. House Bill 73 allocates $250 million for a Mental Health Trust Fund established a framework for how this money can be invested and utilized long-term.
The proposal utilizes abundant one-time funding as an investment that will have an impact well into the future. Proponents maintain that as the fund builds and grows over time, there will be flexibility in how it can be used to address mental health issues that are known now and unknown challenges that may face Tennessee students in the future.
The bill would invest $225 million into an endowment account for future needs, with the remaining $25 million to be used for a statewide needs assessment. The assessment will better determine what the needs are at the local level and what student supports would work best. These funds are in addition to approximately $18 million in federal funds for Mental Health and Family Resource Centers to support student mental health needs.
Services supported by the Mental Health Trust Fund will include direct clinical services in schools; mental health awareness and promotion; suicide prevention strategies; trauma-informed programs and practices; violence and bullying prevention; and Project Basic, a program that includes mental health supports for students.
The bill will be considered in the House Finance, Ways and Means Committee April 26.
Helping Heroes Grant advances through House
A bill that will aid Tennessee veterans by expanding eligibility for the Helping Heroes Grant is advancing through the House. Currently, veterans who have earned either the Global War on Terrorism medal on or after September 11, 2001; the Iraq campaign medal; or the Afghanistan campaign medal were awarded aid through the program.
House Bill 1150 would add eligibility for any veteran who has earned a service expeditionary medal identified by rules and regulations created by the Tennessee Student Assistance Corporation. Additionally, the proposal removes both the provision that limits eligibility to an eight-year timeframe after discharge and the $750,000 cap on the total amount of all Helping Heroes grants. The legislation is expected to be considered by the House Finance Ways and Means Committee on April 26.