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Judge Marie Williams speaks during a legislative breakfast Thursday, Jan. 4, 2018 at the Doubletree Hotel in Chattanooga, Tenn. A group of local officials got together Thursday morning to discuss legislative priorities for 2018.
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Local leaders present legislative wish list

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Local elected leaders are looking to Hamilton County's legislative delegation for action this year on a raft of law and justice-related issues, from domestic violence victims and gun thefts to jail mental health and court funding.

Members of the delegation met for breakfast Thursday morning with various constitutional officers, Circuit Court judges, Hamilton County commissioners and department heads to go through a grab-bag of priorities for the General Assembly session that is set to begin Tuesday.

State Sens. Todd Gardenhire and Bo Watson and Reps. Marc Gravitt, Patsy Hazlewood and Gerald McCormick were there. Rep. JoAnne Favors, who is not seeking re-election, did not attend.

For Circuit Court Clerk Larry Henry and the judges, a top priority is to undo a well-intentioned mistake.

A year-old law that aimed to protect domestic violence victims requires judges to issue automatic orders of protection for victims in civil court if an officer finds a weapon during a call. The trouble is, most victims don't want them — or may not even know about them — the circuit judges said, so the orders end up being dismissed. All that's left is wasted time and paperwork in many cases. And bringing accused abusers from jail into the civil courts, which are in the main courthouse where the tag and title office, the register of deeds and other county offices are located, creates a security problem and uses up deputies' time.

"The big issue is these orders are being put down, they are going to court and they are being dismissed," Henry said. Of 551 automatic orders filed in 2107, he said, 438 were dismissed, 64 were finalized and the rest are unresolved.

Tweaking the law so victims know how and where to get an order when they need one would help, the judges said.

Criminal Court Clerk Vince Dean said there needs to be a better process for proving indigency so people in sessions court can't game the system. He also pleaded with lawmakers, who are looking to lower court costs, not to do anything to reduce his office's share of fines and fees, and to help move electronic filing and reporting ahead.

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Sheriff Jim Hammond's list of requests included charging the theft of a firearm as a felony. Now, theft charges are based on the value of the stolen property, with higher values drawing more serious charges.

Hammond contends that weapons should be treated differently.

He also wants a change so people cited to court on criminal summonses — crimes too minor to warrant arrest — appear before a judge before they're booked. Hammond said many of those folks' charges are dismissed as soon as they go to court. It would save time and energy for his jail officers, as well as public embarrassment for citizens, to book only those whose summonses lead to actual criminal charges.

And while jurisdictions all over the U.S. are loosening barriers against medical and recreational marijuana, Hammond urged state lawmakers for his department and the Tennessee Sheriff's Association not to "let the camel's nose under the fence" by relaxing the law here.

Hammond said he's working on some approaches to the problem of mentally ill people being locked up because there's no place else to keep them. Carter said he's been active in that area as well.

"If we can clean your jail out and get some funding for it, I think you're not going to have to build a jail for awhile," Carter said.

County Mayor Jim Coppinger mostly asked lawmakers not to unload costs or cut revenues to the county, but he did ask them to think about how to compensate top teachers to stay in classrooms rather than move into administration, and to keep fully funding the Basic Education Program.

Even he had a law-enforcement related request: He'd like the Legislature to make it a felony for someone to cut off an electronic monitoring ankle bracelet. Chris Jackson of the county's misdemeanor probation program explained that if someone does that now, officers first have to go to a judge and get a warrant for violating probation before they can start looking for the offender.

Making it a felony to cut off a bracelet would speed up the process and add accountability, he said.

Contact staff writer Judy Walton at jwalton@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6416.

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