Constitutional amendment gives judges more discretion for bail

Published 1:05 pm Friday, April 12, 2024

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House Joint Resolution 869, filed by House Speaker Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville, would expand a judge’s ability to deny bail for certain violent crimes, including terrorism, second-degree murder, aggravated rape, and grave torture. Current law limits judges’ ability to deny bail to first-degree murder charges.

“Expanding the option for a judge to deny bail for violent offenders helps ensure the safety of all Tennesseans,” said State Rep. Kip Capley, R-Summertown, who is guiding passage of the legislation. “By keeping individuals charged with violent crimes in custody, there is a reduced risk of them posing a threat to all Tennesseans.”

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The proposed amendment would also increase judicial transparency by requiring a judge or magistrate to explain their reasons for allowing or denying bail for a defendant.

The Tennessee General Assembly in 2022 passed truth in sentencing reform, which requires offenders convicted in eight categories of violent crimes to serve 100 percent of their court-imposed sentences before their release. That same year, murders declined 14.6 percent statewide while rapes declined 10.6 percent and kidnappings fell nearly 12 percent when compared to 2021, according to the TBI.

House Joint Resolution 859 will now go to the Finance, Ways and Means Committee for further consideration. Any proposed amendment to the Tennessee Constitution must first be approved by two separate General Assemblies before it can be placed on the ballot for voters to decide.

Financial aid eligibility for nursing students

The Tennessee House of Representatives this week unanimously passed legislation ensuring students in licensed practical nursing (LPN) programs can still qualify for federal financial aid assistance.

House Bill 2378, sponsored by State Rep. Esther Helton-Haynes, R-East Ridge, requires the Tennessee Board of Nursing to set a minimum of 1,296 clock hours, or an equivalent number of credit hours, for practical nursing programs offered at public institutions of higher education in the state. A minimum of 980 hours is currently required.

Beginning July 1, colleges that offer LPN programs longer than the minimum set by state law or regulatory board will no longer qualify for federal financial aid. House Bill 2378 will ensure students enrolled in the Tennessee Board of Regents’ (TBR) LPN programs, which exceed the current state minimum requirement, remain eligible to receive financial assistance.

“It is essential that Tennesseans have opportunities to pursue a career in health care here at home,” Helton-Haynes said. “This legislation will ensure students can continue to afford to attend one of the many LPN programs offered across our state. This will not only benefit them professionally, but it will improve overall health care in Tennessee.”

Private institutions would still be able to maintain their current curriculum lengths in accordance with the Board of Nursing’s rules, according to the legislation.

The Tennessee College of Applied Technology (TCAT), operated by the TBR, is the single largest provider of LPNs in the state. During the 2022-23 academic year, 1,186 new LPNs graduated statewide.

Tennessee faced a shortfall of 15,700 registered nurses in 2021, according to a report from the Tennessee Hospital Association. The shortage is expected to lead to increased demand for LPNs statewide.

House Bill 2378 was unanimously approved by the House chamber on April 8. The companion version of the legislation is still advancing in the Senate. 

Program helps solve violent crime

Legislation offering additional support to solve more violent crimes in Tennessee advanced out of the Criminal Justice Committee this week.

The Tennessee Violent Incident Clearance and Technological Investigative Methods Support Act (TN-VICTIMS), sponsored by State Rep. Lowell Russell, R-Vonore, would provide grants to law enforcement agencies to fund strategies and initiatives aimed at improving violent crime clearance rates and supporting victims statewide 

“Keeping Tennesseans safe remains a top priority for Republicans in the General Assembly,” Russell said. “The TN-VICTIMS Act will provide valuable assistance to law enforcement agencies across our state to ensure violent criminals are quickly brought to justice. This will improve public safety and provide victims with the support they deserve.”

The grant program would be developed by the Department of Finance and Administration’s Office of Criminal Justice Programs, in consultation with the Tennessee Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST) Commission, the Tennessee Law Enforcement Training Academy and the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (TBI). All law enforcement agencies in Tennessee would be eligible to receive funding.

According to the most recent TBI data, 502,189 crimes were reported statewide in 2022. Of those cases, 179,960, or 35.8 percent, resulted in arrests.

House Bill 2794 is scheduled to be heard in the Finance, Ways and Means Subcommittee on April 16.

Evidence collected in DUi cases

The General Assembly this week passed legislation allowing for faster and more effective collection of blood samples involving individuals suspected of driving under the influence in Tennessee.

House Bill 2386, sponsored by State Rep. Ron Gant, R-Piperton, allows an officer to execute a search warrant anywhere in the state for medical records or tests to determine the alcohol or drug content of a person’s blood. The legislation also gives magistrates increased authority to issue warrants to recover evidence if at least one element of the crime occurred within their jurisdiction.

“Because evidence of alcohol and drugs metabolizes and dissipates from the bloodstream quickly, this bill… will provide for a timely or more efficient collection of blood evidence to support the effective prosecution of DUI, vehicular assault, and vehicular homicide offenses,” Gant said Monday.

Additionally, the bill encourages hospitals and health care providers to take a blood sample as soon as possible when a warrant is issued. The sample should also be provided to law enforcement expeditiously.

There were 7,774 wrecks in Tennessee that involved impaired drivers in 2022, according to the most recent data from the Tennessee Department of Safety and Homeland Security. There were 575 fatalities and 4,964 injuries as a result.

House Bill 2386 will now head to Gov. Bill Lee’s desk to be signed into law.

Newborn Safe Haven Program expanded

The General Assembly recently approved legislation expanding Tennessee’s newborn Safe Haven program.

House Bill 1922, sponsored by State Rep. Ed Butler, R-Rickman, adds participating emergency communications centers and nursing homes in counties without hospitals to the list of approved locations for safe haven baby boxes and drop-off locations.  

“This is an important step in ensuring rural communities have access to newborn safe haven boxes,” Butler said. “This program allows suffering mothers to safely surrender their child in a place where proper care can be given. Tennessee is a pro-life state and I encourage mothers to take the necessary steps to keep their children, born and unborn, safe and healthy in times of crisis. I thank my colleagues for supporting this life-saving legislation.”

House Bill 1922 would ensure emergency communications centers and nursing homes are subject to the same policies other facilities are bound by under Tennessee’s Safe Haven law.

Tennessee currently has three Safe Haven baby boxes, located at fire stations in Jackson, Knoxville, and Kingston. Baby boxes allow mothers to securely and anonymously surrender their child in a continuously monitored safety device that allows medical staff members to care for the baby quickly.

Current law allows mothers to surrender their newborn up to 14 days after birth without fear of prosecution at hospitals, birthing centers, community health clinics, walk-in clinics, EMS facilities, and 24-hour fire and law enforcement facilities.

More than 130 newborn babies have been safely surrendered in the state since the Safe Haven law was enacted in 2001, according to Secret Safe Place for Newborns of Tennessee. House Bill 1922 now heads to Gov. Bill Lee’s desk to be signed into law.

Wheelchair repair bill advances

Legislation aimed at speeding up the repair process for Tennesseans who use wheelchairs advanced out of the Commerce Committee this week.

House Bill 2147, sponsored by State Rep. Michael Hale, R-Smithville, allows for simple, non-clinical repairs to be made independently without voiding the wheelchair’s warranty. The legislation also allows for annual preventative maintenance visits to be conducted by a wheelchair supplier.

“These preventative wheelchair repair visits will help extend the life of the chairs, while guaranteeing people are not unnecessarily burdened with repairs that could’ve been caught early,” Hale said.

Currently, wheelchair repairs must be performed by an authorized technician with their supplier, or the warranty could be voided. The process can be time-consuming and prevent users from going to work or being out in the community. 

House Bill 2147 will now go to the Calendar and Rules Committee before heading to the House floor for a vote.

Attainable housing legislation

Legislation incentivizing developers to build more multi-family attainable housing in Tennessee advanced out of the House Finance, Ways and Means Committee this week.

House Bill 2363, sponsored by State Rep. Dale Carr, R-Sevierville, would give city leaders the opportunity to create a voluntary attainable housing incentive program to encourage developers to build in their area.

“This bill allows local planning commissions to reset the regulations if they want to, or need to, create more attainable multi-family housing in their city,” Carr said.

The legislation would allow city officials to work with property developers to adjust some of the typical building requirements, like the amount of parking spaces, so the developer can rent out at an economical rate. The multi-family housing accommodations must be designed for residential use, have at least five units per site, and not have detached units.

House Bill 2363 is scheduled to be heard in the Calendar and Rules Committee on April 18.

Bill allows veterans to serve as SROs 

The House chamber this week advanced legislation aimed at filling school resource officer (SRO) vacancies in Tennessee.

House Bill 1899, sponsored by State Rep. Tim Rudd, R-Murfreesboro, allows honorably discharged veterans of the United States armed forces to serve as SROs.

“Many counties… are finding it very difficult and hard to staff the school resource officers,” Rudd said. “There’s simply not enough deputies, especially in rural areas and some urban areas, to find enough officers to be in these schools.”

In order to carry a firearm on school grounds, SRO candidates would be required to complete at least 40 hours of basic training approved by the Tennessee Peace Officer Standards and Training Commission, submit fingerprints for a criminal background check by the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, and be free of any health impairment affecting their ability to carry safely.

The Republican-led General Assembly allocated $232 million in 2023 to enhance school safety, which included $140 million for an armed SRO in every Tennessee public school. According to the Tennessee Department of Education, more than 550 schools statewide were without an SRO as of October.

House Bill 1899 is scheduled to be considered on the House floor on April 16.

(Rep. John Holsclaw represents the Fourth Legislative District, which includes most of Carter County in the Tennessee House.)