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.
The task force’s key findings showed more than half of Tennessee’s prisoners released from custody are back in jail within three years. Tennessee’s high incarceration rates are fueled by non-violent drug and property offenses which have increased the state’s custody population growth by more than 50 percent since 2009. Currently, 75 percent of those incarcerated in Tennessee are locked-up for nonviolent offenses. House Bill 784 provides by 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 bill also puts a limit on the amount of time an individual can be sentenced to probation, with the ability for this time to be extended each year for specific case-by-case situations. The legislation brings the cap for probation down from 10 years to a maximum of eight years, except for defendants who receive multiple convictions.
The proposal will standardize parole revocation practices for technical violations. Approximately 40 percent of prisoners rearrested land back in prison because they violated their parole on technical violations and not for new crimes.
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.
The mandatory supervision does not create parole eligibility for those who are not eligible, including those sentenced to life without parole or to the death penalty.
The legislation establishes a presumption of parole release at a person’s release eligibility date or upon a subsequent parole hearing, unless good cause is shown. Eligible inmates are those who are serving a nonviolent felony offense or a sentence for a Class E or Class D felony offense. The inmate must have no disciplinary record, be designated low risk for community supervision and must have completed or be enrolled in recommended programing to help ensure successful reentry into society. When the Tennessee Board of Parole declines parole, the time period for the next hearing would be set at six years, instead of 10 as provided under current law, unless an inmate is serving a sentence for multiple first-degree murder or facilitation of first-degree murder.
The bill also establishes a jail reimbursement program for local jails that house state offenders.
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 legislation is based on a similar Indiana law that survived a U.S. Supreme Court decision in 2019. The U.S. Supreme Court recognized that states have a legitimate interest in the proper disposition of human fetal remains. The court ruled the law did not impose a burden or interfere with an abortion choice.
Once the bill becomes law, it would be the responsibility of the abortion facility or mother to provide a burial or cremation. Approximately 862,000 abortions are reported each year in the United States. Nearly 11,000 abortions were performed in Tennessee in 2020. Currently, 11 states require burial or cremation of aborted fetal remains.
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.
The bill grandfathers in current members who are providing or have offered to provide a service to the state prior to July 1, 2021. That information must be disclosed on statement of interest declarations filed with the Bureau of Ethics and Campaign Finance no later than Sept. 1, 2021 and annually thereafter for all years in which they continuously serve. There are exceptions in the legislation for employment contracts, indigent defense contracts, as well as medical service contracts. Businesses owners who provide services to the state and who desire to run for office after July 1 of this year would also be required to place their financial interests into a blind trust prior to administration of that member’s oath of office. That financial interest would remain in the blind trust throughout the member’s tenure in the General Assembly, as well as for six months after their term in office ends.
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.
House Bill 1040 now heads to Gov. Lee’s desk for his signature.
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 is a result of Gov. Bill Lee’s partnership with state and local law enforcement agencies through his Use of Force Policy Committee, which issued recommendations on Sept. 10, 2020 in the form of a sample use of force policy for law enforcement agencies to adopt across the state. The committee was charged with making recommendations to enhance policies, improve information sharing and increase officer training.
This legislation 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.
The bill moves on to the full Criminal Justice Committee, where it will be heard for consideration on Monday, April 26.
Legislation requires juvenile detention facilities to report security breaches, escapes
Juvenile detention and correctional facilities in Tennessee will be required to immediately report a security breach or escape of a juvenile under legislation recently passed in both chambers of the General Assembly.
House Bill 1231 requires a report to be submitted to the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services (DCS) and local law enforcement when a security breach or escape is discovered. The report must include the facts of the breach or escape, the time and the circumstances under which the breach escape occurred, as well as a physical description of any person involved. If the supervisor-in-charge intentionally fails to issue the report, they may be charged with a Class C felony.
This bill is in response to a recent juvenile security breach in the state where supervisors failed to notify DCS and local law enforcement. Under House Bill 1231, they can now be charged with the offense of permitting or facilitating an escape. This legislation ensures that proper reports are made in regard to juvenile correction and detention facilities and that onsite facility supervisors-in-charge are held accountable if they fail to comply with the reporting requirements.
Accommodations for All Children passes General Assembly
Republicans in the House and Senate this week passed the Tennessee Accommodations for All Children Act.
House Bill 1233 guarantees reasonable accommodations for all children in Tennessee’s public schools while also protecting every child’s right to privacy. It removes the uncertainty about making accommodations for all children from our teachers, administrators, parents and students. The goal of House Bill 1233 is to be inclusive and respectful of all children in our public schools.
The bill now heads to Gov. Lee’s desk for his signature. Once signed, House Bill 1233 would become law July 1.
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.
The Senate version passed earlier this month and in the House chamber on Monday. The measure complements Gov. Bill Lee’s initiative to increase CTE opportunities through grant programs and other resources that give student more hands-on learning as they prepare for careers.
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.
Nationally, one in five children has a mental health diagnosis in any given year, with over 60 percent of children receiving mental health services through their school.
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.
The General Assembly approves epidemic response strategy
Both chambers of the General Assembly have approved a bill designed to formulate a better response strategy for Tennessee in the case of a statewide epidemic. House Bill 778 would authorize the commissioner for the Tennessee Department of Health to declare an epidemic. The state’s chief medical officer would then implement a statewide collaborative pharmacy practice agreement with a licensed pharmacist to administer vaccines to vulnerable populations. The bill comes in response to the challenges many states have faced in efficiently combatting the spread of Covid-19 and providing the vaccine to citizens. House Bill 778 now goes to Gov. Lee for his signature.