published Monday, January 30th, 2012

Chattanooga Mayor Ron Littlefield's proposed anti-gang initiative faces snags at Capitol

Chattanooga Mayor Ron Littlefield's proposed anti-street gang legislation could be in for a rumble in the halls of the state Capitol, lawmakers say.

Continuing state budget constraints as well as Gov. Bill Haslam's plans to spend $6 million on his own crimefighting package could complicate efforts Littlefield announced last week.

The mayor's plans could depend on cost estimates by legislative analysts, said Hamilton County lawmakers. The analysts also are looking to see what areas already are covered by Haslam's initiative, which is aimed at violent crimes perpetrated by gang members.

Haslam will unveil his 2012-13 budget today in his annual State of the State address.

"We're trying to balance with the governor's and compare it with what the governor's doing," said Senate Speaker Pro Tempore Bo Watson, R-Hixson.

Watson, Senate sponsor for the Chattanooga bills, said he and House sponsor Rep. Vince Dean, R-East Ridge, are awaiting the Fiscal Review Committee estimates.

Some might have "hefty price tags," he said.

"Great ideas. Got to figure out a way to pay for them. [The mayor's initiative] is important, and we're trying to address it to the degree that we can."

Littlefield said he isn't worried about several crime bills being proposed during this session. He expects the bills to be discussed and possibly merged.

"The governor's bills are more likely to pass," he said, while the city's proposed gang bills "give us an opportunity to talk about strengths and weaknesses."

House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, is sponsoring Haslam's legislation. He said he only recently saw the city's bills.

"We'll take that into consideration," McCormick said, but the key is going to be the fiscal analysis.

"If we have some extra money in the budget with some flexibility, some things tend to get put in at the end of the year, but it's not very easy to get those things put in. So if there's a considerable fiscal note it'll be more difficult," he said.

Mayor's Bills

Littlefield is pushing two bills. One makes it a felony to aid or abet members of a street gang who are committing crimes.

"It could lead to significant enhancement in sentence," said Christopher Slobogin, an associate law professor at Vanderbilt University. "It would also count as an additional felony under the three-strikes law."

The other would expand the state's Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act to gangs. Now, the law applies to crimes involving drugs or sexual exploitation of minors.

"Obviously Chattanooga is going all-out against gang activity," Slobogin said.

If the law is passed, "it will probably result in even more Draconian sentences for anyone who has anything to do with a gang act, including some people who are not integral players in gang activity -- people who may be coerced or at least intimidated into getting involved into those kinds of activities," he said.

The price tag will include additional costs for prosecuting and incarcerating felons convicted of the newly defined crimes.

Littlefield acknowledged that "cost has always been the sticking point on strengthening laws of this nature."

But, he said, gang violence is a "significant cost to cities for not addressing this issue more aggressively."

For instance, he said, multiple gang-related shootings on Christmas Eve and early Christmas Day ended up costing half a million dollars, he said.

Haslam's Plan

Haslam's proposal contains elements of an anti-crime package that statewide associations of district attorneys general, sheriffs and police chiefs began developing a decade ago.

It included longer sentences for violent felons who are found with guns and enhanced punishment for forcible crimes committed by two or more people acting in concert. Both provisions are intended to target gangs.

The original proposal would have cost about $60 million. Over time, lawmakers have enacted several provisions dealing with gun-related crimes.

Now a task force that includes state Safety Commissioner Bill Gibbons, the former Shelby County district attorney, is moving to implement the final components.

Given the state's tight finances, "we really worked to come up with a number of action steps that are minimal in costs and in fact, long term, can save the state money," Gibbons said in a recent news conference with Haslam and other officials.

Bill Cox, the Hamilton County district attorney and former president of the District Attorneys Association in Tennessee, has advocated for some of the crime bills in Haslam's budget.

Cox said that past reforms encouraged alternative sentencing rather than making felons serve full sentences.

In recent years, he said, law enforcement and prosecutors have pressed lawmakers to set longer sentences for violent crimes.

"In my opinion it is not enough, but those are the statutory schemes put in place by the state Legislature," he said.

Haslam's package also includes longer sentences for repeat domestic-violence offenders and provisions dealing with prescription drugs, promotion of local drug courts and other issues.

"Will it save lives?"

Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, was unfamiliar with the Chattanooga proposal but, like others, said that it all comes down to money.

"I just heard about it and I know the governor has some gang legislation," he said. Lawmakers will have to see "how all that molds together, so all those questions have to be brought up."

But Dean said it's a hurdle that Littlefield's legislation is not part of Haslam's proposal.

"I know the governor will be more apt to want to fund his proposals than he will be to fund the proposals the city has brought forth," he said.

The issue "comes down to is this something that will save lives? I think probably yes. We'll just have to see what the estimated cost is going to be."

about Andy Sher...

Andy Sher is a Nashville-based staff writer covering Tennessee state government and politics for the Times Free Press. A Washington correspondent from 1999-2005 for the Times Free Press, Andy previously headed up state Capitol coverage for The Chattanooga Times, worked as a state Capitol reporter for The Nashville Banner and was a contributor to The Tennessee Journal, among other publications. Andy worked for 17 years at The Chattanooga Times covering police, health care, county government, ...

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