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‘Smart On Crime’ Bill Clears House Finance Committee

Press Release from House Democratic Leader Rep. Gary Odom, D-Nashville; March 30, 2010:

Armed Robbery Penalty More Than Doubled

(Nashville) — House Democratic Leader Gary Odom passed a long-overdue measure through the House Finance Committee Tuesday that will more than double the minimum time served for armed robbers.

“The unanimous vote today by the House Finance Committee ensures that this bill will be funded without additional cost to taxpayers,” said Odom (D-Nashville).

The bill doesn’t cost taxpayers because it is written to require that non-violent felons serve sentences in very extensive community corrections programs, under which they would pay restitution to their victims. By requiring these persons to serve in these programs, the measure would free up cells for the most violent criminals in society.

The bill, inspired by a West Nashville constituent held at gunpoint by a criminal who pleaded guilty to earlier armed robbery charges, will more than double the minimum amount of time served for aggravated robbery.

“A constituent came to me and said: ‘Gary this guy pointed a gun at me and robbed me in broad daylight in my yard. I was angry when I learned that he had done it before and should have still been in jail,’” Odom said.

The violent offender in the West Nashville case, under this legislation, would have served six of the eight years sentenced instead of only 2.4 years, Odom said.

The bill has been endorsed by the chiefs of police in the four major Tennessee cities, in all three grand divisions. Nashville Police Chief Ronal Serpas says the bill will increase public safety and that it is “smart on crime.”

Odom plans to have the bill on the floor of the House by next week. The bill also moved forward in the Senate Tuesday afternoon, unanimously passing the Judiciary Committee.

Odom’s Crime Bill Clears Fiscal Hurdle

Press Release from Rep. Gary Odom, D-Nashville, March 24, 2010:

Odom bill costs taxpayers nothing, ups sentences for armed robbers

(Nashville) — A bill increasing sentences for armed robbers, sponsored by House Democratic Leader Gary Odom, passed a major hurdle in the state House Wednesday by clearing the Budget subcommittee.

“In the past, the cost has kept us from getting tougher on violent crimes,” said Odom (D-Nashville). “Getting this measure through the Budget subcommittee, where most bills die because of costs, is a clear sign that this bill is on its way to the full House and to the governor’s desk to become law.

“A lot of armed robbers have been serving only a small percentage of their sentences, because of the tight budget. We have found a way to keep these people in jail longer by changing our sentencing priorities.”

Odom plans to move the bill through the House Finance Committee and to a full vote in the next two weeks.

The bill, inspired by a West Nashville constituent held at gunpoint by a criminal who pleaded guilty to earlier armed robbery charges, will more than double the minimum amount of time served for aggravated robbery from 30 to 75 percent.

“A constituent came to me and said a guy pointed a gun at him and robbed him in broad daylight in his yard. This criminal should have still been in jail,’” Odom said.

The bill doesn’t cost taxpayers because it is written to require that non-violent felons serve sentences in very extensive community corrections programs, under which they would pay restitution to their victims.

By requiring these persons to serve in these programs, the measure would free up cells for the most violent criminals in society. These community-correction sentences would include offenses involving limited amounts of fraud and forgery and other non-violent property offenses.

The violent offender in the West Nashville case, under this legislation, would have served six of the eight years sentenced instead of only 2.4 years, Odom said. The bill has been endorsed by the Tennessee Association of Chiefs of Police.

Lawmakers Eye Cuts To Inmate Worker Program

Legislators looking for places to arrest government spending may target a program that modestly compensates prison inmates for performing job-like duties while serving time.

The $4.2 million program pays inmates between 17 cents and 59 cents an hour to perform menial work like kitchen clean-up and custodial jobs, according to the Tennessee Department of Corrections.

“We do think it provides an incentive for inmates to participate fully in programs and their work assignments. It gives them the opportunity to purchase items from the commissary, purchase books, different things and pay some obligations that they have,” Debra Inglis, DOC general counsel,  told lawmakers at the House Consumer and Employee Affairs committee last week.

But “given the financial situation of the state,” lawmakers should reexamine the necessity of the inmate workers program, said Rep. Donna Rowland, R-Murfreesboro.

“I’d really like to look at things we’re spending money on that are not required by us, by law, to do,” said Rowland, secretary of the consumer and employee committee.

Corrections pays out about $350,000 a month to non-maximum security inmates for working several assigned duties during their sentence. Those jobs range from washing laundry and doing yard work to operating as library assistants, recreation specialists and barbers.

The money they make, which is deposited monthly into an inmate’s trust fund, helps pay for items like stamps, copies of legal documents, court costs and outside obligations such as child support.

“That’s a pretty good chunk for people who are really costing our system, isn’t it?” asked Rep. Stacey Campfield, R-Knoxville.

Corrections has been paying inmates for at least the last 40 years, said Dorinda Carter, a department spokeswoman. She said the program combats inmate idleness and assists in rehabilitation by creating a solid work ethic.

“This is the first time some of the inmates have ever worked in their lives so hopefully they will use these skills upon release,” she said.

Between the state’s 14 prisons, 15,482 inmates participate in the program. Corrections currently houses 20,194 total inmates.

Rep. Johnnie Turner, a Memphis Democrat, said it’s important that the state find ways to motivate inmates to become productive citizens. She said she liked that this program was one of them.

Lawmakers are currently molding next year’s $28.4 budget. The fiscal year begins July 1, and lawmakers hope to decide on a budget by the end of April.

High unemployment numbers, lower-than-expected tax collections and an anticipated drop off of federal stimulus funds are throwing this and the next state budget about $1.5 billion out of whack. Now lawmakers have to figure out how to bring the budget into balance, given the gap between anticipated revenues and state spending.

State revenues are $232 million less than expected this fiscal year. The state still has five months left to go before closing out the budget cycle.

Economic prognosticators expect next year’s revenues to also be lower than normal.

Gov. Phil Bredesen proposed chopping off $394.2 million from next year’s budget, which includes a $6.3 million cut in the Department of Corrections.

Andrea Zelinski can be reached at andreazelinski@tnreport.com.