Photo: House Speaker Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville, will again propose a juvenile justice bill that would transfer juvenile offenders to the adult court system when the legislature returns in January. Photo Credit: John Partipilo
By Sam Stockard [Tennessee Lookout -CC BY-NC-ND 4.0] –
A measure by House Speaker Cameron Sexton designed to stiffen sentences for serious juvenile crimes is one of several bills expected to be revived in 2024 after dying in a truncated special session on public safety.
Sexton, a Crossville Republican, contends Memphis officials, including Mayor Jim Strickland and District Attorney General Steve Mulroy, support his blended sentencing measure because of a spate of juvenile crime in Shelby County. Some critics, though, question whether Sexton’s amended bill matches proposals from Shelby County, which gave juvenile judges more discretion in sentencing rather than making transfers to adult prisons automatic.
“Speaker Sexton is a strong advocate for a blended sentencing model that leans more toward tougher, not softer sentences, as well as an automatic transfer to adult court for juveniles who commit murder,” says spokesman Doug Kufner, noting the speaker will file the legislation again in January.
The Senate refused to consider Sexton’s two juvenile sentencing bills during Gov’s Bill Lee’s session on public safety in the wake of The Covenant School shooting that killed six people, including three 9-year-olds.
The session lasted a little more than a week and ended when the Senate balked at taking up more than three bills and a spending measure.
Yet Kufner points out Sexton’s blended sentencing bill passed five House committees, went through three-and-a-half hours of debate and received approval on the House floor.
House Bill 7073 passed 64-4 when Democrats walked out in protest after Sexton silenced Rep. Justin Jones of Nashville for speaking off-topic too many times, a violation of new House rules adopted by the Republican-controlled body. Republicans pushed the bill to the top of the agenda when Democrats left the chamber.
As amended, the bill would enable courts to classify children 14 and older as a “serious youthful offender” and transfer them to prison through age 24 for offenses such as first-degree and second-degree murder, rape, aggravated rape, child rape, aggravated robbery, aggravated kidnapping, terrorism, carjacking, aggravated child abuse and any other Class A or Class B felony involving use of a deadly weapon or criminal attempt to commit a Class A felony.
Bills sponsored by Republican Reps. Rusty Grills of Newbern and Mary Littleton of Dickson that would have allowed juveniles to be transferred to adult court for gun thefts were tabled in the Senate and not given serious consideration in the House.
House Democratic Caucus Chairman John Ray Clemmons opposes Sexton’s juvenile justice bill, saying the Republican supermajority’s criminal justice proposals run “directly contrary” to data showing “truth in sentencing” and increased penalties “utterly fail” to reduce crime and keep teens from committing more offenses.
“They merely increase the school prison pipeline,” Clemmons says.
Rather than overloading courts and spending more on the correction system, the state should invest in public schools, recreation and youth mentorships as well as reducing poverty and childhood hunger, Clemmons says.
Advocates for youth offenders also say Sexton’s bill is a step in the wrong direction too.
Jasmine Miller, an attorney with the Youth Law Center, points out no data shows an increase in juvenile crime, even though the public might have that perception. Thus, she questions the need for tougher sentences without going through several steps.
Before changing juvenile justice laws, legislators need to determine whether other factors are causing juvenile crime, such as schools refusing to enroll teens with a juvenile crime conviction or state probation officers failing to meet with offenders, a situation found by a state comptroller’s audit last year.
“We’re just seeing people sort of saying ‘blended sentencing, that sounds good. Let’s just do it,’ without necessarily understanding what the specific problem is we’re trying to address,” she says.
The problem lies with Democrats and Republicans, Miller says.
Another problem, she says, is that no hearing is required to determine whether a teen offender could avoid being sent to prison once they’re too old to remain in a juvenile facility.
“You only get a hearing if the court decided previously you didn’t have to go (to prison),” Miller says.
In addition, a blended sentencing bill proposed by the Shelby County Crime Commission gave judges more discretion in sending teens directly to prison after they turn 19.
Gun storage requirement
Amid escalating numbers of vehicle gun thefts, state Democratic state Rep. Caleb Hemmer of Nashville is planning to renew a bill designed to curb those crimes.
Hemmer says he is working on a revised version of the bill that would allow cities to set their own regulations within the confines of state law.
Republicans have balked at proposals that could set penalties for people who have guns stolen. Previous bills would have made violations a Class C misdemeanor and required people to report gun thefts and to go through a safety course.
According to Clemmons, safe gun storage was brought up repeatedly in Democrats’ statewide bus tour before the session. He notes that gun ownership comes with “inherent duty of care.”
“If you breach that duty and someone is harmed as a direct result, there should be some accountability,” Clemmons says.
Hemmer had Republican support for an amended version of the bill in the spring and revived it during the special session but couldn’t get enough Republican backing to pass it.
Mass violence threats
Sen. Ferrell Haile, R-Gallatin, is set to renew a bill requiring health-care officials to notify law enforcement when they hear a credible threat of mass violence.
The measure would expand a law Tennessee has in place and make those types of threats a felony.
Lt. Gov. Randy McNally called Haile’s bill one of the best measures proposed during the special session to avert mass shootings similar to the one at The Covenant School. Yet it didn’t make the Senate cut when more than 50 bills were tabled in the Judiciary Committee.
“While Sen. Haile had done excellent work on the bill, it became clear the bill was not quite ripe for the special session,” spokesman Adam Kleinheider says.
McNally hopes it will be prepared for next year’s session.
Closing child autopsy reports
The House voted 86-0 for a bill by House Majority Leader William Lamberth exempting autopsy reports on minors who are victims of violent crime from the state’s public records law. It would have allowed parents or legal guardians to approve the release of those records.
Covenant School parents who supported the measure say Lamberth has told them he plans to bring it back in 2024 after the Senate declined to take it up.
Mary Joyce, a Covenant parent, says members of her group will continue to support the measure next year. She testified in favor of the bill during the recent session, echoing the sentiments of two parents whose children were killed in the March shooting.
Parents should be able to control the use of autopsy reports, just as they were responsible for their children’s safety while they were alive, Joyce says.
“Especially with such a gruesome crime, we don’t feel that it needs to be exposed for anybody to do whatever they want with their own agenda,” she says. “We can all fill in the blanks of what a high-capacity rifle can do to a young child’s body, and it’s really important that we protect minors.”
The bill contains language to deal with cases in which a parent is the perpetrator and to allow courts to override and release an autopsy for an investigation, according to Joyce.
The House Republican Caucus declined to respond to questions about the bill Tuesday, but Lamberth made it one of his focal points in August.
“I’m very disappointed we didn’t get more done in this special session,” Lamberth says.
The House had a lot of bills the Senate left on the table that he hopes will be taken up in January “to help Tennessee families be safer.”
“That’s what we’re here for. We’re not here for a bunch of yelling and screaming and folks getting up in each other’s faces. It’s passionate issues, but we can do that in a professional way,” he says.
School security review
Legislation that didn’t make it through the special session also would have required public schools to set new procedures for responding to a fire alarm. Lamberth points out, “when a fire alarm goes off in this crazy, evil, dangerous world we live in,” all schools need to re-evaluate fire alarm procedures to determine whether a fire, natural disaster or shooting is taking place.
One proposal by Rep. Gino Bulso, R-Brentwood, would have required schools to install alarms with strobe lights and sound systems to disorient potential shooters, a situation that some opponents said could be disastrous if such alarms were to go off accidentally or be pulled by pranksters.
Lamberth points out senators declined to pass bills mainly because of the short time frame.
But pushing some of them through in the 2024 session could prove just as difficult.
Sen. Todd Gardenhire, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, predicts nearly every bill the House passed in the special session will arise again next year and “probably with the same result.”
But at least the Senate will have time to discuss bills, take testimony and “vet” legislation, says Gardenhire, a Chattanooga Republican.
About the Author: Sam Stockard is a veteran Tennessee reporter and editor, having written for the Daily News Journal in Murfreesboro, where he served as lead editor when the paper won an award for being the state’s best Sunday newspaper two years in a row. He has led the Capitol Hill bureau for The Daily Memphian. His awards include Best Single Editorial from the Tennessee Press Association. Follow Stockard on Twitter @StockardSam