Tempers Flare Over ‘Smart’ Crime Bill

Partisan acrimony boiled up on the floor of the House of Representatives on Monday when an East Tennessee Republican tried to alter a bill Democrats have been carefully crafting and claiming as a core element of their legislative agenda this session.

The proposed “Smart on Crime” bill, HB2813, would take away the discretion of Tennessee judges to sentence certain first-time perpetrators of “non-violent property offenses,” typically involving damages of less than $1,000, to jail terms. Instead, judges would sentence them to “community corrections, probation, pre-trial diversion or judicial diversion.”

At the same time, the proposed legislation would require that the more serious crime of armed robbery be added to a list of offenses for which the possibility of early release from prison is diminished.

“To make prison space available to ensure that these violent offenders serve a sentence of sufficient length to remove them as a threat to society and to deter others from committing these offenses, it is in the public’s best interest that certain non-violent property offenders currently serving prison sentences for less serious offenses be given alternative sentences not involving incarceration,” according to the bill. “By doing so, the property offenders are able to work in order to pay restitution to the victims of their crimes without threatening public safety thereby permitting longer sentences for those offenders who do threaten public safety.”

But during House debate on the bill Monday night, Rep. Matthew Hill, R-Jonesborough, proposed an amendment to remove several offenses — shoplifting, passing forged checks, burglary from a motor vehicle and burning personal property — from the list of 19 crimes for which a judge couldn’t sentence an offender to jail time.

“I like a good part of this legislation, but I also think that if you do any of these four things…you should serve time,” said Hill.

Democratic Party Leader Gary Odom, the chief House sponsor of the legislation, became visibly agitated when responding to Hill and the proposed amendment.

Odom expressed disappointment that Hill hadn’t raised his objections earlier and didn’t “(think) enough to bring the concerns or the proposed amendment to me so I could speak with (Hill) about it.” He also accused Hill of “misrepresenting what the judge can do with these situations.”

“This bill does not give anybody a get-out-of-jail-free card,” said Odom. “There is no reduction in sentencing under this bill. The time that someone would be in the custody of the Department of Corrections would remain the same for all these personal property crimes, most of them less than $1,000 in value. What this would do, though, is move them to a different location where they pay their debt to society.”

Odom also said Hill’s amendment would “destroy the legislation” by throwing the fiscal impact estimations of the bill out of whack.

According to the Fiscal Note for HB2813, Tennessee is averaging 1,012 prison admissions a year for the lower-level property offenses defined in the bill. On average over the past 10 years, 669 people have been sentenced each year for aggravated robbery.

In sum, the state would incur additional new costs of about $10 million for the additional incarceration under the terms of the bill.

Odom said the drafters of the bill calculated that moving the small-time property criminals to community corrections and diversion programs would cost the state only five dollars a day instead of $65 a day. By doing that, he added, armed robbers could begin serving roughly six years in jail, up from from the current average of 2.4 years.

“We got up to 74 percent of the minimum sentence (for armed robbers),” said Odom. “All of our other violent crimes in the state, you serve 85 percent. And we couldn’t get all the way, but if you start picking and choosing, you are going to destroy the balance we have in this bill.”

Hill was unmoved.

“Everyone in the state would agree that people that commit the violent crimes that you’re seeking to have serve more of their sentence time — we want them to serve that sentence time,” he said. “That being said, I’m also not interested in a get-out-of-jail-free card. But I also see this as having strong potential to just not going to jail at all.”

Odom made a motion to table Hill’s amendment, but that effort failed on a 47-50 vote, largely along party lines. Only Dennis E. Roach, R-Rutledge and Curry Todd, R-Collierville, left GOP ranks to vote in favor of tabling the amendment. Memphis Democrats John J. DeBerry and Ulysses Jones, Jr. joined with Republicans in opposing Odom’s motion, as did Mark Maddox, D-Dresden. Speaker Kent Williams, the lone “Carter County Republican” in the legislative body, voted against tabling the amendment.

A vote on the actual bill was postponed until later this week.

Andrea Zelinski shot video and contributed reporting for this story.