The Tennessee District Attorneys General Conference will push an aggressive legislative agenda during the upcoming session, including proposed law changes that would facilitate prosecution of serial child sexual abusers, and increase sentences for aggravated child neglect and the most serious attempted first-degree murder cases.
“In 2013, we’re focused on continuing our push to protect our kids, strengthen sentencing guidelines and fight drugs,” said Randall A. York, district attorney general for Clay, Cumberland, DeKalb, Overton, Pickett, Putnam and White counties. “If the legislature approves these proposed changes, I’m confident we will be able to accomplish these goals and more.”
Some of the changes that will be advocated by the conference, which represents the state’s 31 district attorneys, would allow district attorneys to prosecute a serial child sexual abuser with a single trial even if the abuses occurred in multiple judicial districts.
“As it now stands in Tennessee, a defendant accused of multiple counts of child sexual abuse involving different victims in different jurisdictions would have to be tried separately in each of those jurisdictions,” said Guy Jones, deputy director of the conference. “This is time-consuming, it strains already thin resources, and it is burdensome on the victims and their families.”
The district attorneys are also seeking to increase the minimum amount of time that must be served before a prisoner is eligible for parole. For example, some classes of felonies require that 85 percent of the sentence be served, while others require that only 30 percent be completed.
“What we want to do is increase the minimum time served for aggravated child neglect cases to 85 percent, which is the same as it is for aggravated child abuse cases,” said Jones. “Right now, there are individuals who are convicted of extremely serious child neglect – cases in which children suffer as much as those who are victims of physical abuse – who end up serving very short sentences. We need to change that to send a message that the state takes all offenses against children seriously, even if they fall short of the legal definition of abuse.”
Likewise, the district attorneys general will work for an increase in the minimum that must be served for those convicted of attempted first-degree murder where there is serious bodily injury. The current minimum is 30 percent, and the district attorneys will increase it to 85 percent.
“The only difference between murder and attempted murder oftentimes is that the victim was near a trauma center or a shooter was a bad shot,” Jones said. He cited the shooting of Metro Nashville police officer Mark Chestnut, who was shot and severely injured by an escaped convict during a routine traffic stop. The shooter will be eligible for parole after serving only 35 percent of a 45-year sentence, or 15 years.
Other legislative priorities that the conference will address during the upcoming session include:
• Changing current statutes to clearly establish that criminal proceedings can be initiated against defendants who are identified through DNA profiles even if their actual identities are not known at the time the charges are filed. This change would eliminate even the possibility that a sex offender or other violent criminal would escape prosecution several years after DNA evidence was first obtained.
Implementing legislation that would allow for more effective prosecution of selling synthetic drugs (sold in some retail stores as “bath salts” or “plant food”).
•Changing the law to facilitate the prosecution of prescription drug trafficking.
•Adding necessary prosecutorial staff in areas with heavy case loads.
“Many of the priorities established by the legislature to get tough on crime, priorities that we support and have proposed ourselves, cannot be implemented and properly enforced without adequate staffing of DA offices,” Jones said. “Despite growing caseloads, there have been no budget increases for additional staff positions since 2006.”
The Tennessee District Attorneys General Conference was created by the General Assembly in 1961 to provide for a more prompt and efficient administration of justice in the courts of this state. It is composed of the district attorneys general from the state’s 31 judicial districts. The district attorneys general are elected for a term of eight years and are responsible for the prosecution of criminal cases on behalf of the state.