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VOL. 124 | NO. 48 | Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Law Enforcement Officials to Push Anti-Crime Legislation

By Bill Dries

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LIP SERVICE: “Maybe it’s easy to talk about guns in bars because it don’t cost nothing,” Metro Nashville police chief Ronal Serpas, left, said in Memphis this week as he and Memphis Police Director Larry Godwin, right, pushed a legislative packet of anticrime bills and questioned legislative priorities favoring other bills. -- PHOTO BY BILL DRIES

Burglar A breaks into five homes in Tennessee in one day. All five burglaries are reported to police. Burglar A is charged with aggravated burglary. Sometime later, he commits another burglary, is caught and convicted. At his sentencing hearing on that conviction, how many prior offenses has Burglar A committed for purposes of determining how much jail time he will receive?

The answer is one burglary.

All five burglaries, under Tennessee law, count as one prior conviction as the judge determines what Burglar A’s sentence should be.

This week, Shelby County District Attorney General Bill Gibbons, Memphis Police Director Larry Godwin and Shelby County Sheriff Mark Luttrell will go to Nashville to push for a change in that state law. They’ll be joined before the state House and Senate Judiciary Committees by Metro Nashville Police Chief Ronal Serpas and District 25 District Attorney General Mike Dunavant.

From someone who knows

The bill to make the change is one of several in a legislative packet Gibbons and the others have been pushing for several years in the hallways of the Capitol. And there were signs earlier this week that their patience is wearing thin.

That is especially true as the Legislature is considering higher-profile bills that would allow citizens to carry guns in parks and bars.

“We’re talking about wine in grocery stores. We’re talking about guns in parks. We’re talking about guns in bars. We’re not talking about the criminals and what we need to be doing with them.”
– Larry Godwin
Director, Memphis Police Department

“If we can focus our attention on guns in bars, let’s focus our attention on criminals behind bars,” Serpas told reporters at a press conference in Memphis earlier this week.

“Maybe it’s easy to talk about guns in bars because it don’t cost nothing. But tough decisions need to be made.”

The presence of Serpas and Dunavant, whose district includes Fayette, Lauderdale and McNairy counties, is part of a strategy to add voices other than those from Memphis to the call for the anticrime legislative package.

Serpas, who has been a cop in Louisiana, Washington, D.C., and Tennessee, said, “I’ve never had the exposure of repeat violent offenders that I’ve had here in Tennessee.”

“People who put guns on people in Tennessee are treated like a shoplifter,” Serpas said during the Memphis visit. “They get about the same time as a shoplifter gets if that shoplifter was convicted. … We arrested 512 people for armed robbery in Nashville in the last 12 months. They have 9,500 prior criminal charges in their background.”

Not just an urban issue

Dunavant said the rural counties he covers have seen the same problem. He said a bill that would increase sentences for violent crimes involving three or more suspects acting together would eliminate “unwieldy hoops of proving gang membership and gang association.”

“Our burden of proof in the courtroom will be to prove that people commit crimes in concert,” Dunavant said. “That will take away a lot of the defenses of facilitation and other lesser included offenses and will result in greater convictions for the primary offenses.”

The group, which is pushing the bills as the Tennessee Public Safety Coalition, remains at odds with Gov. Phil Bredesen over the cost of the lengthier or enhanced sentences.

Bredesen has said since the last legislative session that the state can’t afford the resulting increase in its prison population.

The coalition argues the measures would act as a deterrent and have not increased prison populations long term in other states where they have been used.

Luttrell admitted neither side has budged since the original difference of opinion.

“This has not been a priority in Nashville,” he said. “That’s not taking away from anything that’s established by the governor as a priority. You know, you can have more than one top priority.”

Gibbons, who is seeking the Republican nomination for governor in 2010, said the coalition is sensitive to budget concerns and has scaled back its legislative proposals. But he and the others say those opposing the bills should make the legislation a higher priority for funding.

“That’s an ongoing problem and we will continue to try to make our point,” he said.

The group has dropped the idea, for now, of trying to require people convicted of first time armed robbery to serve 85 percent of their sentences.

The federal court system abolished parole in the mid-1980s and requires offenders to serve at least 85 percent of their sentences.

Recidivism hurts

But critics argue the federal court doesn’t have nearly the criminal caseload that state courts face.

Serpas and Godwin said the caseload is higher, in part because they are seeing the same violent offenders arrested numerous times.

“What part of that is the Legislature missing?” Serpas asked rhetorically. “And let’s be clear about this. The public safety coalition has never said, ‘Lock them all up and throw away the key.’ … Let’s take the most dangerous people, put them in prison where they belong to advance education, to advance economic development, to advance the business community.”

Godwin agreed, taking another jab at the rival gun bills.

“Everything that seems to be coming out right now – we’re talking about wine in grocery stores. We’re talking about guns in parks. We’re talking about guns in bars,” he said. “We’re not talking about the criminals and what we need to be doing with them.”

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