Tennessee safety commissioner talks about governor's plans to stiffen domestic violence penalties

Tennessee safety commissioner talks about governor's plans to stiffen domestic violence penalties

February 10th, 2012 by Todd South in News

Bill Gibbons, commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Safety and Homeland Security, discusses Gov. Bill Haslam's public safety legislative agenda Thursday at the Chattanooga Times Free Press.

Photo by Tracey Trumbull /Times Free Press.


Major points in Gov. Bill Haslam's public safety legislation:

• Creating a prescription drug database to curb pill abuse, diversion and "doctor-shopping."

• Using an existing pseudoephedrine database to reduce methamphetamine manufacture by blocking sales.

• Boosting state funding for meth lab cleanup.

• Increasing penalties for violent crimes involving three or more defendants, which targets gangs.

• Toughening sentences for repeat felony offenders who are caught with a firearm.

• Moving county-level community corrections into the state corrections system, creating a "streamlined hand-off" of inmates as they move through the criminal justice system.

Source: Gov. Bill Haslam's Public Safety Subcabinet Working Group

Part of Gov. Bill Haslam's major public safety overhaul would put wife beaters in jail and impose higher fines for the abuse.

"We have a problem in our state that we need to address," said Bill Gibbons, commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Safety and Homeland Security and head of Haslam's subcommittee on public safety.

Gibbons pointed to numbers that show Tennessee ranks fifth in the nation for women murdered by men as a result of domestic violence. He noted that more than half of all violent crimes reported in the state are domestic.

Haslam's public safety leaders sat down with the Chattanooga Times Free Press editorial board Thursday to discuss the governor's public safety proposals. The domestic violence penalties are part of the governor's larger legislative package.

Domestic assault is a misdemeanor that under current state law can result in probation upon conviction. The changes would require judges to jail those convicted of second and subsequent domestic assaults.

The "Repeat Domestic Violence Offender" bill would mandate at least 45 days in jail and a $350 to $3,500 fine for a second offense, and at least 120 days' jail time and $1,100 to $5,000 fine for the third and subsequent offenses.

"We think that's very important in terms of sending a message to those repeat offenders that it's not acceptable and we're going to break this cycle," Gibbons said.

Hamilton County District Attorney General Bill Cox said he's supported such changes, which have been pushed by the Tennessee District Attorneys General Conference.

"It would offer protection to domestic violence victims, that's for sure," Cox said Thursday. "And hopefully mandatory jail time would act as a strong deterrent."

Reached by phone, Hamilton County Sheriff Jim Hammond said he supports the increased penalties but there are details and funding problems to fix first.

"It's kind of a Catch-22. On the one hand, I'd be the first to tell you we've got to try to stop the violence," he said. "How best to do that is going to be argued for quite some time."

The current estimated cost of mandatory jail for abusers totals $8.6 million across the state. Most of that would be absorbed by county jails; many, such as Hamilton County, already face space limits and tight budgets.

Gibbons said the $8.6 million figure may not be completely accurate; the number could be lower based on how the estimate was calculated. He added that the state would agree to pay 10 percent of the costs on domestic violence jail time.

If the changes act as a deterrent, Gibbons said the counties would see long-term savings by having fewer arrests of repeat offenders.

Hammond said another problem is the definition of domestic violence. He said if an officer arrives and sees physical injuries, arrest should be automatic.

But if an officer finds no physical harm and perhaps minor property damage, that may not rise to the level of a domestic violence arrest. Definitions within the bill still need work, he said.