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Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Longer sentences sought by DAs

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

The state's district attorneys are planning an aggressive agenda for Tennessee's legislature during the upcoming year, pushing for changes in the law.

The proposed changes would help the prosecution of serial child sexual abusers, toughen sentences for aggravated child neglect and the most serious attempted first-degree murder cases.

17th Judicial District Attorney General Robert Carter said that in 2013, they will be focusing their push to "protect our kids, strengthen sentencing guidelines and fight drugs."

"If the legislature approves these proposed changes, I'm confident we will be able to accomplish these goals and more," Carter said. The 17th Judicial District serves Bedford, Lincoln, Marshall and Moore counties.

Simplify trials

One of the changes the state's 31 DAs are advocating would allow prosecutors to try a serial child sexual abuser with a single trial even if the abuses occurred in multiple judicial districts.

According to Guy Jones, deputy director of the Tennessee District Attorneys General Conference, the way the law is written now, a defendant with victims in different jurisdictions has to be tried separately.

"This is time-consuming, it strains already thin resources, and it is burdensome on the victims and their families," Jones explained.

More time served

Tennessee DAs are also seeking to increase the minimum time that must be served before a prisoner is eligible for parole. For example, some classes of felonies require that 85 percent of a sentence be served, while others require that only 30 percent be completed.

Jones says that DAs want to increase the minimum time served for aggravated child abuse neglect to 85 percent, explaining that some convicted of extremely serious neglect, cases where children suffer as much as a victim of physical abuse, 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," Jones said.

Change minimum

Also, district attorney generals say they will work to increase the minimum sentence served for persons found guilty of attempted first-degree murder where serious bodily injury occurs. The current minimum is 30 percent and the DAs want that changed to 85 percent.

"The only difference between murder and attempted murder oftentimes is that the victim was near a trauma center or the shooter was a bad shot," Jones said, citing the shooting of Nashville police officer Mark Chestnut.

Chestnut was severely injured by an escaped convict during a routine traffic stop, but the gunman will be eligible for parole after serving only 35 percent of a 45-year sentence, or 15 years.

Other goals

The state's DA will address other legislative priorities through 2013, such as:

* Changing the law to clearly establish that criminal proceedings can begin against a defendant who is identified through DNA profiles, even if their actual identity is not known when the charges are filed. This would eliminate 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, which are sold in some retail stores at "bath salts" or "plant food."

* Change the law to facilitate the prosecution of prescription drug trafficking.

* DAs are also wanting to add necessary prosecutorial staff in areas with case heavy loads, with Jones explaining that without adequate staffing, they can not implement their plan to get tough on crime.

"Despite growing case loads, there have been no budget increases for additional staff positions since 2006," Jones explained.