NASHVILLE — Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee's criminal justice reform legislation is dead for the year, as is a separate legislative effort by Rep. Patsy Hazlewood, R-Signal Mountain, to put a new victims' rights constitutional amendment before Tennessee voters in 2022.
The measures fell by the wayside this week as state lawmakers returned to the Capitol to respond to massive projected shortfalls affecting the state's budget as well as coronavirus-related issues and other legislation.
"COVID-19 response and the budget are the top priorities during this special legislative session, but we look forward to revisiting reform proposals during the next legislative session," Lee spokesman Gillum Ferguson said Wednesday.
Before becoming governor in 2019, Lee worked as a volunteer in a prison ministry group. Last year, he commissioned a task force that came up with a series of "data-driven policy recommendations" aimed at improving public safety, revising sentencing for some nonviolent offenders and increasing support for prisoners' reentry into society.
Elements of those recommendations wound up in two bills, which collectively sought to create a new "Office of Reentry Services" within the state Department of Correction to "promote the successful reentry of criminal offenders" whose sentences have expired.
Other elements placed limits on prosecutors' ability to "stack" charges against non-violent defendants in areas such as theft to arrive at lengthy probation sentences. It placed an eight-year limit.
It revised offenders' eligibility for drug court treatment programs and day care centers aimed at providing education and other services, including help in seeking work as community-based alternative to incarceration. Lee's budget included a day care center for Hamilton County, but that's all fallen as the state wrestles with having to make hundreds of millions of dollars in cuts.
While the legislation collectively would have saved state government some $59 million annually, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Michael Curcio, R-Dickson, said one hang-up was the $5 million estimated cost for the new office of reentry services. That comes as the state is faced with slashing hundreds of millions of dollars due to plummeting tax revenues and COVID-19's impact on the state's economy.
But district attorneys were also concerned about some elements of sentencing revisions in areas such as their ability to "stack" charges against defendants in cases such as major theft to push yearslong probation.
In presenting one of the bills to the Senate Judiciary Committee in mid-March, Senate Republican Caucus Chairman Ken Yager, R-Kingston, said it broadened eligibility for drug and alcohol recovery courts he said have proved successful. It also continued to exclude sexual offenders.
The bill also put "some limitation" on length of probation in some cases, Yager told the panel, saying it would limit that to eight years, and also cited studies he said "show excessive probation has no redemptive value."
District Attorney Stephen Crump of Cleveland, representing prosecutors, raised a series of concerns in the panel, saying "we are opposed to this bill based on three sections," among them the eight-year maximum cap on probation. Crump said DAs often seek the longer probations to ensure people convicted of thefts will pay restitution to victims.
But the bills easily cleared the Senate Judiciary Committee before lawmakers recessed March 19. As lawmakers reconvened this week, Curcio announced Tuesday both of Lee's criminal justice bills had been taken off notice.
House Majority Leader William Lamberth, R-Portland, said lawmakers will return to the issue next year, adding work continues with prosecutors, public defenders and advocacy groups.
"While we're in a very good position to move forward, this was always a multi-year process," Lamberth said. "It can easily become part of the larger effort to reform criminal justice in our state," noting that's something he has sought to do and that "now we have a governor who has made this a major part of his primary initiatives."
Marcy's Law delayed
Hazlewood, meanwhile, had been pressing for a state constitutional amendment that gives victims of crimes and their families greater protections.
Similar amendments have passed in other states. The effort has been pushed by a wealthy California businessman whose sister, Marsy, was slain.
But her House Joint Resolution 822 grants a greater right to privacy for victims, which has open records advocates fretting it could make things more difficult for the public and news organizations to obtain certain information about crimes and victims.
"We are very disappointed, but it became clear that there is simply not enough time to successfully clear all of the steps in both the House and Senate needed for passage this year," Hazlewood said.
The Signal Mountain Republican vowed to come back with the proposed constitutional amendment in the 112th General Assembly that will take office in January 2021.
The "need is clear," Hazlewood said. "Crime victims are counting on us. We look forward to beginning again when the next legislature convenes in January."
Postponing action means that the earliest the proposal could go before Tennessee voters is 2024.
"This is one of many important issues that will unfortunately have to be delayed for now as the General Assembly works to quickly address important budget items and other COVID-related issues before adjourning for the year," said Sen. John Stevens, R-Huntington, the victims' rights resolution's prime sponsor in the upper chamber.
Tennessee already has a victims' "Bill of Rights" in its state constitution, having been approved by 89% of voters in 1998.
But Hazlewood and leaders of the national "Marsy's Law" movement argue some of Tennessee's current amendment has been unenforceable and thus the rights of victims and their families aren't adequately protected. Some of the proposed amendment's provisions, however, have drawn concern from advocates of open government, the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee, and the legal community.
Contact Andy Sher at email@example.com or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.