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Members are selected randomly through driver's license records; they must be over age 18 and have no felony convictions. The 13 grand jurors sit every other week for two days and hear between 500 and 600 cases in their four-month service, according to the court clerk's office. They listen to evidence presented by citizens or police and determine if there is probable cause to indict on criminal charges. The jurors also tour law enforcement facilities such as the jail, community corrections and the courthouse during their service to learn more about the criminal justice system.
The Hamilton County grand jury's report comes out every four months and sounds pretty much the same as it has for years - recommendations to spend more on recidivism programs, enhance DUI penalties and so on.
But last week a novel suggestion popped up -- legalize possession of small amounts of marijuana to reduce the number of criminal cases in court.
The idea won over voters in Colorado and Washington last year, resulting in legalized recreational use of marijuana. And a poll taken in March found that for the first time in years of polling that a majority of Americans now favor legalizing the use of marijuana. A total of 52 percent said the use of marijuana should be legalized, and 45 percent said it should not, the Pew Research Center said. But in Tennessee?
Foreman Robert A. Smith, a seven-year veteran of the part-time job, said this isn't the first mention of the idea.
According to a grand jury report from last year, "Charging felony possession for a small amount of marijuana due to two or more prior drug convictions seems harsh. The State Legislature should consider re-examining this penalty."
State Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson, said he's heard such comments before, but the idea has found little traction.
"This isn't a new argument to the Legislature," he said.
Watson doesn't support legalizing marijuana. But he said he reads all of the grand jury reports and writes thank-you letters to members for their service.
"I think it is a good gauge of public sentiment of the cohort of citizens who serve on the grand jury," he said.
Watson used repeated grand jury reports as references in recent years while working on laws to tighten scrap-yard regulations. Loopholes in documentation requirements have allowed car thieves to steal older vehicles and sell them for scrap without providing registration information.
Watson speculated that grand jurors are frustrated because marijuana charges clog court dockets.
The Hamilton County Criminal Court Clerk's Office said there were 1,387 drug possession charges in local courts in 2010. The numbers rose to 1,675 in 2011 and to 1,800 last year.
The numbers provided did not distinguish between marijuana and other types of drugs.
Other grand juries have had different concerns, Watson said. One problem cited for years has been the need to reduce recidivism.
Watson said the state has done a lot of work on such programs and is still reaching for success. That's the area that would best alleviate crowded courtrooms, he said.
The jurors on the most recent panel also had advice for law enforcement personnel -- lose weight.
"We would like to suggest that any law enforcement officer be required to keep their weight under check," the report states. "While serving on our term, we noticed law enforcement as well as correctional officers more than just a little overweight."
Contact Staff Writer Todd South at tsouth@timesfree press.com or 423-757-6347. Follow him on Twitter @tsouthCTFP.