The State Senate passed several bills this week to protect and give more rights to crime victims, including a bill giving victims of rape the power to keep their identity private. The action came as the nation recognized National Crime Victims’ Week, an annual observance to promote victims’ right and honor crime victims and those who advocate on their behalf. Senate Bill 2254 provides that identifying information regarding the victim will be treated as confidential following a guilty plea or conviction. The information would not be open for inspection by members of the public, unless the victim waives the right to confidentiality.
The legislation is designed to be sensitive to the victims of sexual offenses and their desire to keep their identity private following the conclusion of a trial where the defendant is found guilty. It requires the district attorney general to inform the victims of their right to privacy. Nothing in the bill can be used to deny access to the public part of this file as long as the personal information is redacted.
The bill does not affect the open records law until there is a sentencing. The public will still be able to know about the crimes in their community and the media will be able to report, through adjudication, anything that they are reporting now.
The bill was crafted in collaboration with the Tennessee Association of Chiefs of Police, Tennessee Press Association, Tennessee Bar Association, Tennessee Coalition to End Domestic and Sexual Abuse, Tennessee Association of Broadcasters, Tennessee Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, District Attorney General Conference and the Tennessee District Public Defenders Conference.
The State Senate also passed Senate Bill 2084 this week which repeals the statute of limitations for rape, aggravated rape, rape of a child and aggravated rape of a child, as long as law enforcement or the district attorney general has been notified within three years of the offense. The Senate approved a minor House amendment on the bill on Wednesday and sent the proposal to the governor for his signature. The legislation pertains to acts committed on or after the bill’s July 1, 2014 effective date and offenses committed prior to that date, as long as the statute of limitations has not expired. The current statutes of limitations range from 8 years to 15 years for rape of an adult and up to 25 years after the 18th birthday of the victim when the offense involves a child.
Sex Offender Registry — In similar action, Senators voted to approve legislation which defines “offender against children” for purpose of the state’s Sex Offender Registry as a sexual offender, violent sexual offender, or violent juvenile sexual offender if the victim in one or more of the offender’s crimes was 12 years old or younger. Senate Bill 2083 requires a person classified as an offender against children to remain on the Sex Offender Registry for life. The Registry is open to the public. In addition, the bill adds aggravated sexual battery to the list of offenses to place a juvenile on the Juvenile Sexual Registry. The Juvenile Registry is not open to the public, but is available to law enforcement.
The Senate also passed Senate Bill 2090 to help ensure Tennessee is not a destination for sex offenders as a result of having weaker laws than other states regarding work and residential restrictions. Tennessee law already has such restrictions for child sex offenders. This legislation prohibits any sexual offender, whose victim was an adult, from knowingly establishing a residence or to accept employment within 1,000 feet of any public, private or parochial school, licensed day care center, other child care facility, public park, playground, recreation center or athletic field available for use by the general public.
Abuse of Elderly and Disabled — The State Senate passed legislation on Wednesday to protect elderly and adults with disabilities from abuse. Senate Bill 1852 increases punishment for adult abuse, exploitation or neglect from a Class E to a Class D felony. The move will help district attorneys prosecute the crime without having to meet the higher evidentiary standard required under the state’s adult abuse laws reserved for more serious crimes.
The bill comes after communications with district attorneys who say the statute with the higher standard is proving impossible to prosecute for some of the state’s most vulnerable persons because they suffer from dementia, Alzheimer’s, or other conditions which prevent them from testifying on their own behalf. The legislation also requires court clerks to notify the Department of Health when someone has been convicted of adult abuse so the offender can be added to the Adult Abuse Registry. All employers of adult caretakers must check the Registry before hiring an employee. In addition, the bill creates a Task Force comprised of a variety of departments and agencies that will meet over the next several months to develop initiatives to better protect vulnerable adults.
Earlier this year, Executive Director of the Tennessee Commission on Aging and Disability Jim Shulman told members of the Health and General Welfare Committee that assaults on the elderly have grown over the last three years of reporting from 1,360 in 2009 to 1,492 in 2011. In addition, Shulman said underreporting of abuse may also occur due to incapacitation or abuse may be mistaken for “usual aging.”
This bill not only helps prosecutors punish offenders, but makes sure that those who have been convicted are on the Registry to prevent them from being hired elsewhere, as well as provides a forum for comprehensive look at how we can prevent abuse of our elderly and disabled.
Victims / Students — In addition, the Senate approved legislation which grants the court broad discretion to assign a juvenile offender, whose victim attends the same school, to another school in consultation with the local education agency. Senate Bill 583 grants the court discretion to determine how best to restrict future contact of the defendant with the victim while in school or other public settings, unless the victim and his or her parents, consent to the attendance.
Upholding Tennessee’s Death Penalty Statute — State Senators voted this week to close a loophole in current law that allows for the state to use execution to carry out a death sentence if a court should rule lethal injection is unconstitutional but does not address what happens if the chemicals used in the fatal dose are not available. Senate Bill 2580 allows for the death sentence to be carried out through electrocution if the Commissioner of Correction certifies that one or more of the ingredients essential to the lethal injection dose cannot be obtained through no fault of the department.
Lethal injection is the primary method of execution in the state. The legislation is designed to address delays that could occur in executions due to a shortage of lethal injection drugs. That shortage could be compounded if the state does not prevail in keeping the anonymity of the department’s lethal injection drug supplier.
There are 75 males and 1 female on death row in Tennessee for committing “the worst of the worst” crimes. Legislation was passed in 2000 specifying lethal injection for all inmates sentenced to death except for death row inmates who committed their crime prior to January 1, 1999, unless he or she requests electrocution.
The last execution in Tennessee was in December 2009, when multi-murderer Cecil Johnson was put to death by lethal injection for three counts of first degree murder. Johnson was convicted in 1981 for the triple killing at a convenience market and was given three death sentences by a jury. Seventeen death row inmates have been sentenced with multiple death sentences.
Criminal Gangs – In other action on crime, the Community Safety Act, which aims to curb gang crime, has been approved by the State Senate. Senate Bill 1634 would clarify that a petition for the abatement of gang-related conduct, may be filed against a criminal gang itself to which the members belong. The court would have the authority to restrict gang activity in certain geographic locations like parks and neighborhoods.
The bill would require gang-related conduct to be proven beyond clear and convincing evidence. It includes an opt-out provision that would allow a gang member to be dismissed from an injunction if he or she renounced membership. The proposal would also make it a Class C misdemeanor for a gang member to knowingly violate any temporary or permanent injunction.