Safety Coalition Makes Final Push For Stricter Penalties

A coalition of district attorneys, police chiefs and sheriffs today called on the state legislature to impose more prison time for gangs or any individual who uses a gun to commit violent crimes.

Metro Police Chief Ronal Serpas says Nashville has reduced violent crime but faces the continuing problem of repeat offenders.

“We have three years of crime reduction in our city, hard work by neighborhoods and police officers, but we cannot overcome, by ourselves, that the 13,000 dangerous criminals we’ve arrested over the last twelve months, and every twelve months, 61 percent have already been convicted of a crime, 80 percent of them have previous arrest histories, half of them have already been arrested for violent crimes. They’re not serving any time in prison and they’re back out on the streets making victims of friends, families, businesses and children. It’s just wrong.”

The coalition wants mandatory sentences for crimes committed with guns and for crimes carried out by gangs. A third proposal would add 64 new assistant district attorneys around the state.

The bill for the prosecutors has advanced but the funding is to be taken up after the rest of the budget is debated. The sentencing bills are to be heard in the House Judiciary Committee this week.

The coalition says the state’s violent crime rate for 2005 is the second highest in the nation, behind only South Carolina.

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Montgomery County Sheriff Norman Lewis, chairman of the coalition, says the expected budget surplus should cover the funding for the two sentencing bills.

Metro Police Chief Ronal Serpas says that such mandatory sentencing would take the hard-core offenders off Nashville’s streets.

“Over the last two years, we know that there are 256 people who became victims at the hands of criminals who have shunned rehabilitation, who are the exact target of this laser-like legislation to hold them in prison a hundred percent of their time.”

In 2005, the statewide violent crime rate stood at 753 incidents per 100,000 people.

The Public Safety Coalition’s three bills are:

• SB 1967 Norris/HB 1835 John DeBerry; Mandatory sentence for crime committed with a gun. In the Senate the bill is in Senate Judiciary. House Judiciary has it on its agenda Wednesday. Fiscal analysts believe the bill will cost $60.3 million due to increased incarceration of offenders.

• SB 1322 Stanley/HB 1834 John DeBerry; Mandatory sentence for crime committed by three or more in a gang. On the agenda for Senate Judiciary Committee Tuesday and in House Judiciary Wednesday. The fiscal note is $20.7 million, against for increased prison time.

• SB 1554 McNally/HB 1836 Coleman; Adding 64 new prosecutors. Senate Judiciary has approved, and the bill is in the Senate Finance Committee. In the House the bill has been approved by House Judiciary and placed “behind the budget” in the House Finance Committee. The staffing bill is expected to cost $6.5 million.

Memphis Attorney General Bill Gibbons argues that the “fiscal notes” which predict state costs if the bills pass are flawed. He says the Fiscal Review analysts did not include any factor for reduced convictions due to the harder time to be served.

Citing experience under similar laws passed in Florida, Gibbons predicts that enhanced sentencing could deter as many as 25 percent of offenders from committing the offense in the first place.

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