Several new laws will go into effect Thursday, July 1, 2021 in Tennessee. Some of the major ones include:
SECOND AMENDMENT RIGHTS / STRONGER PENALTIES FOR GUN THEFT
The General Assembly approved legislation during the 2021 legislative session allowing Tennesseans to exercise their constitutional right to carry firearms without a permit, while cracking down on criminals who steal guns or possess them illegally. The new law allows law-abiding citizens in Tennessee who are at least 21 years old or are honorably discharged or active in the U.S. Armed Forces, National Guard or Reserves to carry a firearm without a permit in a place where they are lawfully present.
Those who carry without a permit must have no felony convictions, orders of protection in effect, pending charges or convictions for domestic violence or stalking, or have been adjudicated as a mental defective. In addition, individuals convicted of two DUI offenses within the last ten years or one in the last five years are not eligible, as well as federal prohibitions which include illegal aliens and fugitives from justice.
The legislation also increases penalties for firearm-related crime to promote public safety including:
- Increasing the penalty for theft of a firearm to a Class E felony;
- Providing a sentencing enhancement for theft of a firearm in a car;
- Increasing the minimum sentence for theft of a firearm from 30 days to 180 days; and
- Increasing the sentences for unlawful possession of a firearm by violent felons and felony drug offenders, possession of a handgun by a felon, and unlawfully providing a handgun to a juvenile or allowing a juvenile to possess a handgun.
Tennessee will still retain its carry permitting process for gun owners who want to take advantage of reciprocity to carry in other states and for the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) exemption.
BOATING UNDER THE INFLUENCE
In an effort to make Tennessee’s waterways safer, state lawmakers acted this year to increase penalties for Boating Under the Influence (BUI). According to TWRA, between 100 to 150 BUI arrests are made each year. About 30% of all boating accidents involve drugs or alcohol.
Current law allows for a six-month suspension of a boating license for drinking and boating. However, if a violation occurs at the end of boating season then there is practically no real penalty or consequence. The new statute raises the penalties of a BUI to be consistent with a DUI (Driving Under the Influence). This measure is also important because impaired boaters can also become impaired drivers once they get off their boat.
FARMERS / TRACTOR LEMON LAW
Another measure to help farmers passed during the 2021 legislative session enacts a Tractor Lemon Law. It requires manufacturers to either replace or refund the full purchase price of farm machinery under certain circumstances. The manufacturer must cover any repair costs that are not a result of normal wear and tear during the machinery’s usage. It also enables consumers to bring civil action against the manufacturer if it is brought within two years after the defect has been reported.
REEMPLOYMENT PROTECTIONS TO TENNESSEE NATIONAL GUARD
Legislation protecting civilian reemployment rights for Tennessee National Guard members upon completion of service in a State Active Duty was approved during the 2021 session. This provides members of the National Guard returning from State Active Duty the same right to reemployment afforded to service members called to federal active service, protecting them from discrimination in the workplace based on their military service.
Tennessee’s National Guard servicemen and women have been on the frontlines of the state’s COVID-19 response for the past year, providing a critical service to people across our state. This legislation will support their efforts and serve as a recruitment tool to ensure the very best continue to serve in the Tennessee National Guard.
STRONG ACT / TENNESSEE NATIONAL GUARD
Legislation which expands eligibility for tuition reimbursement for members of the Tennessee National Guard under Tennessee’s Support, Training, and Renewing Opportunity for National Guardsmen (STRONG) Act was also approved.
The General Assembly passed the original STRONG Act in 2017. That legislation provided reimbursement to an educational institution in the amount equal to 100% of the maximum resident undergraduate in-state tuition. This is a great benefit, but the 2021 amendment to the STRONG Act has made it even better. It provides eligible service members with tuition reimbursement for up to 120 hours for a bachelor’s degree, 40 hours for a master’s degree and 24 hours for a vocational or technical program. The legislation also provides reimbursement for up to 30 additional hours for any service member enrolled in ROTC or other officer-producing programs while pursuing a bachelor’s degree or master’s degree.
Students enrolled in officer-producing programs are required to take certain courses, which can be outside the requirements of their chosen degree. This could lead to ROTC students hitting the credit hour cap before obtaining their degree and losing their eligibility for additional reimbursement. Finally, the new law extends the program for four more years until June 30, 2025.
The STRONG Act has boosted recruitment of service members in the National Guard since its enactment in 2017. This legislation aims to retain and renew more service members by offering additional education benefits.
DISABLED VETERANS / STATE EMPLOYEE / SICK LEAVE
A new law in Tennessee allows a state employee, who is a veteran with a service-connected disability of 30% or more, to receive 36 hours of sick leave each year to attend appointments related to that disability. The intent behind the legislation is that a disabled veteran who is a state employee should not have to use their sick leave or vacation time to make their Veterans Administration (VA) appointments.
HUNTING AND FISHING LICENSES
State lawmakers passed legislation benefitting those who purchase hunting and fishing licenses in Tennessee. The new law implements a true 365-day annual sport license to be issued by the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency (TWRA).
Previous law required that all annual sport licenses be issued for the year beginning March 1 and ending the last day of February of the following year. This legislation instead requires that all annual licenses and permits relating to wildlife expire 365 days following the date of issuance. The measure will help individuals purchasing a license for a particular season, like dove season, which opens on September 1 from having their license expire only a few months later, rather than enjoying the full year before expiration.
ABORTION / UNBORN CHILD DIGNITY ACT
The Unborn Child Dignity Act advocating for the dignity of the unborn by requiring proper burial or cremation for a surgically aborted child was approved this year. It addresses the health, safety and moral concerns over how to properly dispose of human fetal remains.
The legislation grants the same protection, respect and dignity to a deceased, surgically aborted child required by law to any other deceased human being. It is based on a similar Indiana law that was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2019. The court recognized that states have a legitimate interest in the proper disposition of human fetal remains and that it does not interfere with an abortion choice.
CURBING UNDERAGE DRINKING
A new law prohibiting property owners from knowingly distributing alcohol to an underage adult has been adopted to help curb underage drinking. An underage adult was defined as any person between the ages of 18 to 21. The new law amends that statute to penalize distribution to all minors, correcting a probable oversight that did not include individuals under the age of 18. Additionally, the measure establishes a mandatory minimum fine of $1,000 for convictions of offenses related to providing alcohol to minors.
PUBLIC RESTROOMS / BUSINESSES
Legislation has passed stating that if a business has a policy allowing both biological sexes to use the same multi-stall public restroom, then a notice of the policy should be posted at the entrance of it. The new law does not apply to single-use public restrooms.
TAX CUT/SALES TAX HOLIDAY
This provides an additional sales tax holiday on the sale of food and food ingredients from July 30, 2021 – August 4, 2021. It also cuts the taxes on the retail sale of prepared food for restaurants during the same time period. This is in addition to Tennessee’s annual sales tax holiday which allows consumers to purchase clothing, school supplies and computers tax-free.
TEACHER PAY/RURAL TEACHERS
A bill was passed requiring the State Board of Education to increase the minimum salary on the state salary schedule by the same percentage as any increase in funds made to the instructional component of the Basic Education Program (BEP). By doing so, it will ensure that the lowest paid teachers within Tennessee will receive the raises.
Legislation which will help address teacher shortages was passed by the General Assembly this year by simplifying the teacher licensure process. It provides aid to teachers who are moving into Tennessee to receive an appropriate teaching license, helping qualified teachers get into classrooms quicker.
TEACHERS / ENDORSEMENT PATHWAYS
A new law which seeks to increase retention of high-quality educators by providing an alternative endorsement pathway has passed the General Assembly. The measure provides additional flexibility at the local level. The Board of Education will create a process by which school districts may administer training programs for endorsements without having to enroll in higher education. Individuals will still be expected to pass an assessment to ensure they are qualified.
TEXTBOOK TRANSPARENCY ACT
The Textbook Transparency Act was adopted in 2021 to ensure that all textbooks in the hands of Tennessee students are accessible to the public to view. It makes available online textbooks that are adopted by the state of Tennessee and used by public schools. Compared to the 90-day timeframe textbooks are currently required to be available to the public. This new statute requires publishers to make these materials available so long as they are actively being used in the classroom.
STUDENTS / THREAT OF MASS VIOLENCE
Legislation seeking to address mass violence on school property was approved before lawmakers adjourned the 2021 session. It creates a Class A misdemeanor offense for communicating a threat to commit an act of mass violence on school property or at a school-related activity and a Class B misdemeanor if a person with knowledge fails to report it.
A sentencing court may require a person sentenced for either offense to pay restitution for the destruction of normal activities. It also allows a court to order a child held for threatening mass violence on a school to undergo a mental health evaluation.
TENNESSEE ACCOMMODATIONS FOR ALL CHILDREN ACT
The Tennessee Accommodations for All Children Act has been approved. It requires a public school to provide a reasonable accommodation to a student who has conveyed through a written request that they are unwilling or unable to use multi-occupancy restrooms or changing facilities designated for the person’s sex. The goal of the bill is to be respectful and protect every child’s right to privacy, as well as to remove any uncertainty about making accommodations for all children.
STUDENT ATHLETES / SAFE STARS ACT
Legislation to protect the health of student athletes was approved by lawmakers this year. The new law creates standards and metrics for student athlete safety in a program that has been recognized as one of the most comprehensive health and safety programs in the United States for K-12 athletics.
STUDENT’S RIGHT TO KNOW ACT
The General Assembly enacted legislation to provide critical information to Tennesseans seeking to pursue higher education. The Student’s Right to Know Act requires the Tennessee Higher Education Commission (THEC) to publish a web-based dashboard for high school students considering their college and career options. It will give students more information regarding higher education cost options, in addition to expected wages in occupations they are considering.
HOPE SCHOLARSHIP / HOMESCHOOLERS
Before the General Assembly wrapped up the 2021 legislative session, lawmakers also dealt with inequities in the HOPE Scholarship Grant for homeschool students. Under previous law, homeschool students could not qualify for HOPE Scholarships through their GPA score, unlike their public and accredited private school counterparts. Instead, they solely relied on their ACT scores for eligibility. The new law solves this discrepancy by extending aid to homeschool students who both complete six credit hours of dual-enrollment and maintain at least a 3.0 GPA in those courses. Additionally, the legislation removes the requirement that a student must have been enrolled in a home school for one year immediately preceding the completion of their high school level education.
CHILD PROTECTION / ADOPTION / HEALTH CHECK
Legislation was passed this year requiring adoptive parents receiving subsidies to annually provide the Department of Children’s Services (DCS) with medical or school enrollment records in order to ascertain a health check. This legislation comes after the horrific deaths of two Roane County children. Authorities believe the children were buried several years before discovery. The arrest warrant said the children were fed a “starvation diet of light bread and water” by their adoptive parents. They were also locked in a basement and caged in isolation. The adoptive parents continued receiving financial benefits for both children after their death. The new law also authorizes DCS to initiate a face-to-face visit if the adoptive parent fails to provide the documentation and foul play might be suspected.
CHILD CARE TASK FORCE / HIGH QUALITY DAY CARE
A new Tennessee Child Care Task Force has been formed as a result of legislation passed this year. The purpose is to develop a strategic plan to address the current challenges of providing and accessing high-quality affordable child care. The group will look at ways to build public and private partnerships to streamline coordination of state departments to find solutions to these challenges.
CHILD CARE QUALITY RATING IMPROVEMENT SYSTEM
Another bill was passed this year making significant revisions to the Child Care Quality Rating Improvement System (QRIS). This system provides the mechanisms for conducting quality assessment of child care providers, the child care report card system, and the child care rated licensing systems. It replaces the outdated Report Card system with a new assessment tool to weave quality indicators into the licensing rules so that it is a seamless system for parents and providers to navigate.
CHILDREN / EVELYN’S LAW
Several significant bills addressing crimes against children were approved during the 2021 legislative session, including Evelyn’s Law. Under the new law, parents in Tennessee who do not report children missing to law enforcement within 24 hours could be charged with a Class A misdemeanor. It is named after a Sullivan County 15-month-old who was found dead after her mother failed to report her missing to the authorities for months.
CHILDREN / ELI’S LAW
Legislation putting more guardrails in place to protect children from abusive parents was passed. Called Eli’s Law, the measure allows the Department of Children’s Services (DCS) to investigate the birth of subsequent children born to parents who have had a previous child removed from their custody.
The legislation was introduced last year in response to a story from Ronda Paulson, founder of the Isaiah 117 House. Paulson began fostering nine-month-old Isaiah in 2015 after being removed from his parents’ custody due to months of both neglect and abuse. Less than two years later, Isaiah’s biological parents gave birth to their second son, Eli, for which the law is named. Under Tennessee law, DCS was not expected to investigate the well-being of a child born to parents whose other child had been previously removed from their custody. Eli, much like Isaiah, was subjected to traumatizing levels of abuse.
This legislation helps prevent such tragic situations by creating a legal presumption of possible dependence or neglect of any child born to a parent who had a child removed from their custody. Acting in the best interest of the child, DCS will be required to notify the court which decided the first child’s case and any other entitled party of the subsequent child’s birth upon learning of it. The court must then immediately schedule a hearing regarding any conceivable effect that the birth may have on the case and consider further action to ensure the safety and well-being of the child.
CHILDREN / SEVERE CHILD ABUSE / EXPOSURE TO DANGEROUS DRUGS
A new law was passed this year to protect children from being exposed to dangerous illegal drugs. It expands the definition of “severe child abuse” to involve a child’s exposure to certain extremely dangerous or illegal drugs. It also provides an individual that knowingly allows a child to be in the presence of and have accessibility to such drugs as cocaine, methamphetamine or fentanyl will be guilty of severe child abuse.
CHILDREN / CHILD NEGLECT AND ENDANGERMENT / EXPOSURE TO DANGEROUS DRUGS
Similarly, a new law was passed which expands the definition of child neglect and endangerment to include the exposure of a child to methamphetamine or any other dangerous drug that are not Schedule VI. Schedule VI drugs are marijuana and its equivalents. Under the new law, offenders are subject to a Class A misdemeanor unless it is a child 8 years old or under, which would be a Class D felony.
SAFE HOME FOR TRAFFICKED CHILDREN
A new law was approved to help prevent minors who are victims of human trafficking from being prosecuted for prostitution and ensure they are given the care they need to recover. It requires law enforcement officers to alert the Department of Children’s Services when they take a minor into custody on charges of prostitution so the child can appropriately be placed in a safe home. This helps ensure the child can receive any professional assistance they may need and can be removed from a life dictated by abusive traffickers.
SEXUAL ASSAULT AND HUMAN TRAFFICKING VICTIMS / SELF DEFENSE
This establishes certain considerations regarding the use of force by victims of human trafficking. It authorizes victims to use force that could result in serious bodily injury or death, even if the victims are engaged in illegal activity or in a location they are not legally allowed to be, if they are in the situation as a result of their status as a human trafficking victim.
Under the new law, the victim must prove in court they are a victim of human trafficking in order to use deadly force. Previously, Tennessee law allowed victims to respond in kind to a reasonable belief of a threat of death or serious bodily injury by using force as self-defense or defense of a third party. However, force was not lawful when used by persons engaged in criminal activity in a location they were not allowed to be or in a location that furthered criminal activity.
Often times, victims of human trafficking can be engaged in criminal activity that is largely forced on them by a trafficker, such as manufacturing or selling drugs.
STATUTE OF LIMITATIONS / COMMERCIAL SEX TRAFFICKING
Another new statute aiming to curb human trafficking removes the statute of limitations for any commercial sex trafficking offense committed against a child on or after July 1, 2021.
Many victims of human trafficking fear retaliation of violence against them or their families by their traffickers if they report the crime. There is also reluctance to report due to embarrassment. By the time victims do report the crime, the statute of limitations could be elapsed and charges cannot be filed. This legislation extends the statute of limitations so that traffickers who traffic children can be brought to justice.
SEX TRAFFICKING / FULL SENTENCE
Another bill passed this year adds those convicted of sex trafficking to the category of sexual predators who are ineligible for early parole or release before completion of their full sentence. The new law applies to offenders who have been convicted of one or more predatory offenses.
HUMAN TRAFFICKING / EVIDENCE / SOCIAL MEDIA PLATFORMS
Legislation was passed during the 2021 session to help prosecute crimes involving human trafficking in cases where a social media platform was used. In human trafficking cases, it is common for defendants to use their cellphones to communicate through social media or chats to negotiate over a price of a victim.
The legislation authorizes a law enforcement officer, district attorney or designee, or the attorney general or designee to require the disclosure of wire and electronic communications for evidentiary purposes to crack down on human trafficking offenses organized through social media platforms.
The conversation or data from these platforms is needed to corroborate the victim’s story of what happened.
Companies or providers that refuse to comply with the legislation can be punished for contempt of the court.
TRUTH IN SENTENCING
The 112th General Assembly passed major “Truth in Sentencing” legislation strengthening protections for victims and their families. It ensures certain violent or sexual offenders serve 100 percent of the sentence imposed by a judge or jury.
The new law affects offenses that historically target women and children such as rape, sexual battery, continuous sexual abuse of a child, sexual battery by an authority figure, incest, promoting prostitution, aggravated child abuse, domestic assault, aggravated sexual exploitation of a minor and trafficking for a commercial sex act. While the legislation does not remove judicial discretion, it ensures that parole and probation are not options for those found guilty of crimes that fall into these categories.
FACILITATION OF RAPE OF A CHILD / FULL SENTENCE
State lawmakers approved a new statute requiring a person convicted of the facilitation of rape of a child or aggravated rape of a child to serve 100% of the sentence imposed minus a maximum of 15% sentence reduction credits. It also requires the offenders to be sentenced to community supervision for life.
CRIME / POST-CONVICTION FINGERPRINT ANALYSIS
Justice for crime victims is the focus of a new law establishing a process for post-conviction fingerprint testing in Tennessee. It aims to help solve cold cases and can also bring justice in instances where a person has been wrongly convicted.
Every state has the ability to test DNA post-conviction, and this sets up a similar process for fingerprints, which can be just as important for solving cold cases.
PROTECTION FOR RAPE SURVIVORS ACT
State lawmakers approved the Jim Coley Protection for Rape Survivors Act of 2021, a victim-centered bill that provides more transparency regarding the rape kit backlog process. It makes sure the handling procedure of rape kits is responsive, reliable and consistent.
In addition, the new law requires the TBI to develop and implement an electronic system that tracks the location and status of each rape kit and gives victims access to the system through a tracking number. Victims must also be notified 60 days before destruction or disposal of the evidence.
RAPE VICTIMS / CUSTODY RIGHTS
Legislation protecting rape victims and children conceived in rape from questionable outcomes in civil custody battles passed this year. The measure ensures child custody rights are removed for those who are convicted or plead guilty to a lesser offense of rape. It adds aggravated statutory rape and statutory rape by an authority figure to the list of offenses for which the offender will be prohibited from having custody rights.
COUNSELORS / SEXUAL MISCONDUCT
Legislation designed to protect victims from an unscrupulous counselor or clergy member was approved on final consideration this year. The new law adds a victim is incapable of defense if sexual contact occurs during the course of a consultation, examination, treatment, therapy or other professional service that are provided by a physician, psychologist, psychiatrist, therapist, social worker, nurse, chemical dependency counselor or a member of the clergy.
RAPE OF A CHILD BY A JUVENILE
Legislation aiming to prevent juveniles who are sex offenders from reoffending or further traumatizing victims has passed the General Assembly. The measure ensures that a juvenile convicted of conduct that would constitute rape, aggravated rape, rape of a child or aggravated rape of a child if committed by an adult cannot work or volunteer at a place that is in close or frequent contact with children.
The new law stems from an incident where a juvenile convicted of raping a 5-year-old boy was volunteering at an elementary school where the victim was zoned to attend.
LIFETIME ORDER OF PROTECTION
Several important bills were approved before lawmakers adjourned the 2021 session to help victims subjected to stalking and domestic violence. This includes a new statute which creates a lifetime order of protection that can be issued to a victim of certain felony offenses to prohibit the offender from coming around or communicating with them. Under this legislation, a victim of a felony offense of assault, criminal homicide, attempted homicide, kidnapping, or sexual offenses may file a petition for a lifetime order of protection against their convicted offender. It also permits service of ex parte orders of protection for up to one year from issuance.
VICTIM ADVOCATES / CONFIDENTIALITY
Another law passed recently protects confidentiality of victim advocates. It ensures communication between a victim of domestic violence or sexual abuse and a trained victim advocate remains confidential through statutory protections.
Aggravated animal cruelty is a grave crime that includes intentionally killing or causing serious physical harm to a companion animal such as a dog or a cat. State lawmakers approved legislation in 2021 to remove barriers to prosecute aggravated animal cruelty cases in Tennessee.
Before, to convict a person of aggravated animal cruelty a prosecutor must prove the act was done in a ‘depraved or sadistic manner.’ The new law removes the language ‘depraved or sadistic’ from the law, which is a difficult intent to prove. It provides that a person commits aggravated cruelty to animals when, with no justifiable purpose, the person intentionally or knowingly kills, maims, tortures, crushes, burns, drowns, suffocates, mutilates, starves, or otherwise causes serious physical injury, a substantial risk of death, or death to a companion animal.
CRACKING DOWN ON “PORCH PIRATES”
Criminals who steal packages left in mailboxes or on doorsteps could face stiffer jail time under a new law passed this session. Mail theft is currently charged under existing theft statutes, which applies penalties based on the value of the item stolen. The first offense will continue to be punished based on the value of the stolen item. However, the legislation stipulates that the second or subsequent offense of mail theft must at least be charged as a Class E felony.
CATALYTIC CONVERTER THEFT
Nationwide, police are reporting a surge in thefts of catalytic converters on automobiles. This year, the Tennessee General Assembly approved legislation requiring any person who buys unattached catalytic converters to be registered as a scrap metal dealer in a fixed location business and to track purchases. In addition, it ensures the person selling a detached catalytic converter provides documentation and identification.
Catalytic converters contain three precious metals – rhodium, palladium and platinum. Today rhodium has a value of $25,850 per ounce as compared to gold which is valued at $1,700 per ounce. Palladium has a value of $2,648 per ounce, while platinum is valued at $1,200 per ounce. This has fueled a black market in stolen catalytic converters, which can be sawed off the underside of a car in less than a minute.
The Senate and House of Representatives approved legislation to discourage drag racing, which is becoming an increasing public safety issue on Tennessee roadways. It stiffens the penalty for drag racing from a Class B misdemeanor to a Class A misdemeanor to deter drivers from engaging in this reckless behavior.
Beyond the increase in force at the moment of impact in a collision, traveling at excessive speed imposes many obstacles to the safe operation of a motor vehicle. These include decreased reaction time to avoid vehicles or pedestrians, inability to safely turn or to retain control through curves, increased risk of skidding off roads, increased rollover risk, etc.
ENHANCED PENALTIES FOR AGGRAVATED RIOTS
A new law passed this year adds to the offense of aggravated rioting to include those who are compensated to participate in a riot or travel from outside the state to participate.
Under Tennessee law, riot means “a disturbance in a public place or penal institution involving an assemblage of three or more persons which, by tumultuous and violent conduct, creates grave danger or substantial damage to property or serious bodily injury to persons or substantially obstructs law enforcement or other governmental function.
PROTECTING LAW ENFORCEMENT INFORMANTS
Over the past several years, law enforcement has seen a decline in the number of people willing to work with them due to instances where defendants are intimidating informants. This includes posting the informants information on social media.
Legislation passed this year seeks to protect the identifying information of informants to help remedy this issue. The new law states that if a district attorney general is required to disclose to the defendant personal identifying information or statements made by a law enforcement informant or witness in certain cases, then the district attorney general may petition the court for a protective order. The order prohibits the defendant and their counsel from publishing the information or statements made before or during the trial.
CRIME / GOOD SAMARITAN
State lawmakers approved legislation this year which enhances penalties for murder against a person who was acting as a “Good Samaritan.” This refers to a person who helps, defends, protects, or renders emergency care to a person in need without compensation. The new law applies to cases when the defendant knew that the person was acting as a Good Samaritan.
FIRING A FIREARM FROM A VEHICLE
A new law has passed making it reckless endangerment subject to a Class C felony to fire a firearm from within a motor vehicle, enhancing penalties for the crime.
CRIMINAL JUSTICE REFORM
The General Assembly passed major criminal justice reform legislation this year with approval of key proposals in Governor Bill Lee’s legislative package. This includes legislation recommended by the Tennessee Criminal Justice Reinvestment Task Force to streamline and appropriately leverage alternatives to incarceration, namely Recovery Courts and felony probation.
There are currently 30,000 individuals incarcerated for felonies in state prisons and jails, with Tennessee’s corrections budget now costing taxpayers in excess of $1 billion annually. Almost half of paroled inmates return, making Tennessee’s recidivism rate among the highest in the nation. Tennessee’s high incarceration rates are fueled by non-violent drug and property offenses which have increased the state’s custody population growth by more than 50 percent since 2009.
The new law expands Tennessee’s successful Recovery Court System, which includes Veterans Courts, Mental Health Courts and Drug Courts for those charged with misdemeanor assaults. Studies show these courts have an excellent track record for individuals who require specialized and highly accountable treatment. It also gives judges the discretion to provide treatment for individuals who need it when the facts of their case indicate that a Recovery Court is the best correction option available.
In addition, the new law puts a limit on the amount of time an individual can be sentenced to probation, with the ability for this time to be extended each year for specific case-by-case situations. The legislation brings the cap for probation down from 10 years to a maximum of eight years, except for defendants who receive multiple convictions. Judges will have the discretion for crediting time served while on probation.
Finally, the legislation standardizes parole revocation practices for technical violations. Approximately 40 percent of prisoners rearrested go back to prison because they broke their parole due to technical violations, not for committing new crimes.
CRIMINAL JUSTICE DATA COLLECTION
Legislation to improve data collection within Tennessee’s criminal justice system has been enacted to help lawmakers make the best decisions possible to protect public safety and curb recidivism. The legislation requires the Administrative Office of Courts to provide each court clerk in eight counties which have not installed Tennessee Court Information System (TN CIS) with a list of data that is required to be integrated.
EXPUNCTION FOR EMPLOYMENT
The General Assembly acted this year to help remove barriers for employment and education for Tennesseans with nonviolent or low-level assault offenses on their criminal record. It allows these individuals to have their record expunged in very limiting circumstances. The legislation offers those who have made mistakes in their past and paid their debt to society a second chance so they can find housing, employment and provide for their family. Similarly, a new law makes a simple assault committed after July 1, 2000 eligible for consideration of expungement. The new law does not apply to those convicted of domestic abuse.
JUVENILE JUSTICE SYSTEM IMPROVEMENTS
State lawmakers approved legislation to improve Tennessee’s juvenile justice system by better assessing where improvements and resources should be focused. The new law provides legislators, judges, law enforcement officials and other stakeholders with more accurate information by modernizing and standardizing information collected by juvenile courts across the state.
JUVENILE DETENTION FACILITY BREACHES AND ESCAPES
A new law passed this year which requires an immediate report of a security breach or escape of a juvenile to be submitted to the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services (DCS) and local law enforcement when discovered.
PRISONS / CELL PHONES
Cell phones in Tennessee prisons have long been an ongoing security and public safety concern, with dangerous inmates using them to direct criminal activity despite the fact that they are confined within penitentiary facilities. They have been used in the planning of escapes, drug dealing, money extortions, witness/victim intimidation, and violent crimes such as murder. Legislation approved by the General Assembly this year aims to curb the practice by making the possession of a telecommunications device in a penal institution a Class E felony, punishable by a fine of up to $3,000 on second offense.
VOLUNTEER FIREFIGHTERS / PAYMENT FOR TRAINING
Another major bill helping volunteer firefighters provides an annual $600 payment upon completion of at least 30 hours of training. In addition, the budget included $1 million to provide support grants for volunteer firefighter departments under a program set up by legislation passed by the General Assembly in 2019.
POLICE OFFICERS / SPENCER BRISTOL ACT / EVADING ARREST
Legislation which increases protections for police officers by strengthening penalties for criminals who evade arrest, was passed before the 2021 session adjourned. The legislation is named for Master Patrol Officer Spencer Bristol who was struck and killed on December 30, 2019 by a vehicle while involved in a foot pursuit of a subject. Officer Bristol was a U.S. Navy veteran who served in the Hendersonville Police Department for four years.
Previously, penalties for evading arrest on foot were far less stringent than those imposed for suspects fleeing in a vehicle. The new law puts the crime of fleeing on foot and in a vehicle in parity. If evading arrest results in serious bodily injury of a law enforcement officer, the penalty is increased to a Class C felony, punishable by 3 to 15 years in prison. The sentence is increased to a Class A felony, punishable by 15 to 60 years in prison, if the offense results in the death of a law enforcement officer.
PROTECTING FIRST RESPONDERS / MURDER
Legislation was passed this year ensuring that someone convicted of murdering a first responder with targeted intent for the job they do will be charged and punished as a terrorist for their crime. This includes punishment of life without parole or the death penalty.
SUPPORTING LAW ENFORCEMENT OFFICERS
Another bill passed this year provides that a reward be offered for information leading to the arrest of any individual responsible for shooting a law enforcement officer in the line of duty. It provides a $10,000 reward to the individual providing the information if the law enforcement officer is injured, and a $20,000 reward if the officer is killed.
RETIRED LAW ENFORCEMENT OFFICERS
Another law passed this year allows retired law enforcement officers, authorized to carry a firearm in the same manner as an active one, to provide private security services without completing the firearms training required for private protective services licensing.
Major legislation was unanimously approved by the General Assembly in 2021 strengthening and improving the state’s Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program. The funds, which come from a federal block grant, provide important support to struggling families, such as child care assistance, temporary cash assistance, transportation, job training, employment activities and other support services offered through the state’s Families First Program.
The new law creates a two-year pilot program which provides enhanced cash assistance to individuals who are actively pursuing educational opportunities. This encourages TANF recipients to attain degrees which will assist them in bridging the gap to self-sufficiency. The legislation also increases the TANF allotment. For example, it increases the monthly amount a family of three receives from $277 to $387.
The legislation makes significant investments with community partners and stakeholders by deploying the TANF reserves, including distribution of $180 million through a new Tennessee Opportunity Pilot Program. This will fund seven pilot programs to create large-scale programs benefitting TANF recipients. The pilot programs established will be subject to third party, academic review to determine their effectiveness.
Similarly, the legislation creates the Families First Community Grants to infuse $50 million in TANF reserve funds into the community through grants to organizations providing services to low income families. This more traditional grant program will offer smaller non-profits, which are unable to be selected for large scale pilots, the ability to utilize TANF funding in their communities to improve outcomes and opportunities for parents and children.
A TANF Advisory Board is created under the legislation to approve grantees and provide important input regarding the effectiveness of existing Families First and Two-Generation Program policies and grant programs. Two-Generation is a program which focuses on intergenerational poverty through a “whole family” approach. It combines parent and child interventions to break the cycle of poverty and create a pathway to economic security. The Board will make recommendations regarding development of effective policies.
Finally, the new statute puts into place mechanisms to ensure Tennessee continues to combat fraud, waste, and abuse in TANF programs. It increases civil penalties for individuals using false identities to secure benefits. It also provides for confidential reporting of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and TANF fraud to encourage reporting such activity.