Tennessee House passes anti-gang bill

photo The Tennessee State Capitol in downtown Nashville.
Arkansas-Tennessee Live Blog

NASHVILLE - Chattanooga Mayor Ron Littlefield says the General Assembly's approval of his anti-gang crime bill will let police and prosecutors "cut the heart out of some of the worst gangs" in the city.

"I'm very pleased," the mayor said Tuesday after the House passed the bill on an 86-2 vote. It passed the Senate unanimously Monday. "It was a long slog to get through all of the committees and such."

The mayor said he spoke with Gov. Bill Haslam, who was in Chattanooga Tuesday, and is optimistic he will sign the bill. It expands state racketeering laws to include members of criminal gangs. The bill provides for additional jail time and fines of up to $250,000.

It is designed to deal with the "worst of the worst" and won't be used lightly, the mayor said, emphasizing the city plans a secondary approach to problems using nonprofit groups from the YMCA to Big Brothers and Big Sisters to steer youth away from gang life.

House action on the bill came on the last day of the lawmakers' annual legislative session.

Meanwhile, another local bill that would have enabled Chattanooga to purchase AT&T Field died after Senate Speaker Pro Tempore Bo Watson, R-Hixson, and House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, R-Hixson, decided not to move the legislation.

That measure would have let the city issue state sales tax-funded bonds to buy the stadium.

The team's owners, who also own AT&T Field, are trying to sell the Lookouts.

At issue is whether a potential buyer might be interested in buying the team but not willing to take on the additional cost of purchasing the stadium.

"It wasn't a priority for the city," Watson said, noting Littlefield's focus was on his anti-gang legislation.

Earlier in the day, Rep. Vince Dean, R-East Ridge, the crime bill's sponsor, told the House, "If you got any type of gang activity in your community this is going to give your law enforcement a tool to go after them."

Watson handled the bill in the Senate. Two members of the local delegation, Democratic Reps. Tommie Brown and JoAnne Favors, have expressed concerns about the legislation.

The bill expands the state's current Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act to include criminal gangs. It alters the definition of "racketeering activity" to include the commission of or attempt to commit, conspiring to commit, or soliciting, coercing, or intimidating another person to commit a criminal gang offense.

Those convicted would face increased sentences of about three years to nearly 51/2 years in prison as well as the fines, according to a legislative analysis.

"The thing that's scariest about all of this is that the man who's pushing this, the mayor, has less than a year" in office, said Brown, who voted against the bill. "When you turn loose that much police power in a community, there's always lack of trust between the people and the police."

The state Department of Correction estimates the bill will increase state expenditures by about $109,800 annually with few people affected.

But Littlefield's anti-gang coordinator, former prosecutor Boyd Patterson, said that is based on current RICO statutes. He anticipates more use by police and prosecutors against the most dangerous and violent gang members as authorities learn about the legislation.

If the measure becomes law, Patterson said, it will be "one more reason why gang members need to start accepting the outreach we're offering. We told them clearly it's one path or the other from here on in Chattanooga."

The measure would be applied to the violent and dangerous members and "take out entire gangs as we can," Patterson said. But, he added, the city also will "provide as many outreach opportunities coming from jobs and education, family support as we can."

Another city anti-gang bill died because of its $1.9 million cost. Patterson said he thinks the RICO bill is more important.

Earlier in the session, lawmakers passed two key pieces of Haslam's own anti-crime package.

One increases penalties for violent crimes committed by groups of three or more people. Another enhances penalties for gun possession by people with previous felony convictions.