Chattanooga gang bills pass hurdle; projected cost still a concern

Chattanooga gang bills pass hurdle; projected cost still a concern

March 15th, 2012 by Andy Sher in News

Ron Littlefield, City of Chattanooga Mayor

Photo by Patrick Smith/Times Free Press.

NASHVILLE - Chattanooga Mayor Ron Littlefield's anti-gang bills flew over their first hurdle Tuesday in the House Judiciary Subcommittee, but the projected $1.92 million annual cost on one of the measures could trap it in the legislative equivalent of the slammer.

The first bill would apply the state's Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act to criminal gang leaders. The estimated $109,000 annual cost for the RICO bill shouldn't prove to be too big a problem, proponents said.

But the second bill would enhance penalties for anyone actively participating in any gang who knows members engage in a pattern of criminal gang activity and willfully promote any felonious criminal conduct.

That got slapped by the Fiscal Review Committee staff with the $1.92 million fiscal note, which could pose significant problems when it goes through the Finance Committee, said the sponsor, Rep. Vince Dean, R-East Ridge.

"I'm encouraged about the RICO," said Dean, sponsor of both bills. "I'm getting some good indication that after we've settled the budget that we may find some funding to pay for the RICO bill. The other one, I'm not so sure on."

Citing the $1.92 million fiscal note on the second bill dealing with gang member participation, Dean said, "That may be something we have to look at in years to come."

Littlefield was at the Legislature on Wednesday where the two bills, as well as another Dean bill to toughen criminal penalties for repeat violent offenders, passed.

"We'll see how that goes," the mayor said of the gang-member participation bill. "The governor's bill [aimed at gangs] is going to add some teeth as well. It may be that we could forgo [gang participation bill] if the governor's bill fits what we're trying to do. If we have to lose one, that's the one."

He said he was pleased with the situation on the RICO bill and previously has said he expects prosecutors will be interested in using it to pursue the "worst of the worst."

The gang participation bill creates a separate offense. Active participation in a criminal street gang is all that would be required to secure a conviction or sustain a juvenile petition.

Sentences would be served consecutively unless a judge decides otherwise.

According to the $1.92 million fiscal note, the state's Department of Correction assumes that 3 percent of admissions for aggravated assault, robbery and aggravated burglary were committed in concert by two or more people.

The average daily cost of housing a felon in a state prison is $61.36. The average time served for a Class E felony is 1.28 years, so the cost per prisoner would come to about $26,800.

Taking into account current annual conviction figures for aggravated assault as well as population growth and recidivism, the bill would jail another 24 gang members at a projected cost $688,488.72 to the state by the 10th year of the would-be law.

State law requires maximum projections of new inmates and costs out to Year 10 to force lawmakers to think about ever-harsher sentences' impact on the state budget and, ultimately, taxpayers.

Gang members convicted of robbery would generate a maximum cost of $344,244.36. That's based on an expected 12 offenders.

The additional operating cost for 31 gang members convicted of aggravated burglarly is $889,297.93 by year 10.

Littlefield asked local lawmakers to introduce the bills in the wake of several high-profile shootings.