The Tennessee House of Representatives today passed a bill to lengthen the actual time perpetrators of aggravated robbery spend behind bars.
House Bill 2813 would at the same time strip judges of their discretion to sentence lesser, “non-violent,” property criminals — like petty thieves, vandals and check forgers who generally steal or do less than $1,000 in damage — to any jail time at all for first offenses, unless they violate the terms of their subsequent probation or “community corrections” diversion program.
Democrats in the House have touted the proposal as a centerpiece to their legislative agenda this session.
“Currently, a person convicted of armed robbery can serve as little as 30 percent of a minimum eight-year sentence,” said Rep. Gary Odom, House Democratic Party leader and chief sponsor of the bill. “Thirty percent of an eight-year sentence is 2.4 years. What this legislation would do is increase the minimum time served to 74 percent of that eight year sentence. That would be almost six years — 5.92 years to be exact.”
Odom said part of the increased costs of incarcerating armed robbers longer will be recouped by putting the lesser first-time offenders into much cheaper probation and police-monitored diversion programs. While they wouldn’t actually serve time behind bars, those lower level criminals would be “closely supervised and would work to pay restitution to their victims,” he said.
“This is a good bill that is smart on crime,” he said, adding that the legislation is supported by Tennessee cops and district attorneys. “We will be using our existing jail cells to house the most dangerous convicted criminals.”
Odom’s bill had run into a snag Monday when Rep. Matthew Hill, a Jonesborough Republican, questioned the wisdom of eliminating incarceration as possible consequence for several of the 19 crimes on the new “non-violent” no-jail-time list.
An obviously aggravated Odom accused Hill of attempting to “destroy the legislation” for personal political reasons after Hill suggested an amendment to leave judges with the discretion to lock up check forgers, auto burglars, shoplifters and those who steal and set fire to property. Hill should have raised any concerns he had with the bill much earlier in the committee process, Odom said.
“If you start picking and choosing” which offenders on the list ought to remain eligible for jail time, Odom angrily declared, “you are going to destroy the balance we have in this bill.” The bill’s total price tag for jailing armed robbers longer is around $20 million, although about $10 million of that is offset through diversion of the lesser felons away from incarceration.
A vote on the bill was subsequently postponed until today. Immediately following the Monday session, Odom and Hill squared off and exchanged pleasantries before reporters. (See the video here.)
During Thursday’s House discussion, Odom and Hill appeared more or less ready to make nice, at least for purposes of maintaining floor decorum, and Hill withdrew his amendment.
“We can yell, we can scream, we can get red in the face, but at the end of the day we all represent the people of the great state of Tennessee,” Hill proclaimed during Thursday’s bill debate. “It still remains not my intention to hurt this legislation in any way, shape or form. It is my desire that we have strong laws. Laws that are tough on crime — ‘smart on crime,’ as I think it was said earlier.”
Hill said his amendment was aimed merely at trying “to make a good bill better.”
Odom responded that he “never intended to personally attack” Hill or malign his district constituents.
“But in the heat of battle sometimes…when you have worked on an issue, as we all have, that you feel very strongly about — I guess my concern was not (Hill’s) motives, but the gentleman’s actions with the amendment, and us not having the opportunity to discuss it beforehand,” said Odom. He added that he respects Hill and appreciated him withdrawing the amendment.
However, Odom’s bill still may not be in the clear just yet. It’ll have to be passed by the state Senate, and Rep. Eric Swafford, R-Pikeville, indicated he plans to work with Republicans in that chamber to lengthen the list of crimes for which a person would serve more of their minimum jail sentence.
“We have a list of several very serious felonies similar to the offense Leader Odom is getting at to raise the amount of time that someone has to spend in jail,” said Swafford.
Swafford’s list of crimes for which he wants to see longer prison time served includes conspiracy to commit first degree murder, carjacking, violations involvition weapons of mass destruction, acts of terrorism, arson of a place of worship, reckless endangerment involving a deadly weapon and aggravated stalking.
After the floor session, Swafford said the “funding mechanism” he’ll attempt to implement to offset costs associated with keeping inmates in jail longer will involve hitting criminals with stiffer monetary penalties.