NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) — Tennessee’s annual legislative session is underway in Nashville.
Prior to the start of the 113th General Assembly, WKRN News 2’s Chris O’Brien sat down with leaders on both sides of the aisle to talk about all the issues and what they might look like in bill form.
Separate interviews were conducted with Senate Minority Leader Raumesh Akbari (D-Memphis), Lt. Gov. Randy McNally (R-Oak Ridge), Speaker of the House Cameron Sexton (R-Crossville), House Majority Leader William Lamberth (R-Portland), Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson (R-Franklin) and Democratic House Caucus Chairman John Ray Clemmons (D-Nashville).
Not every interviewee was asked about every subject, but there was considerable crossover with most of them.
Below you’ll find what lawmakers said ahead of the session when asked about their thoughts on crime-related topics, including how to address the backlog of rape kits in the state.
TBI and the backlog of rape kits
With the brutal murder of Eliza Fletcher last year, the TBI’s backlog of rape kits became center stage. Fingers were pointed after another woman came forward saying she had been raped by the same suspect one year before.
A bill filed by Sen. London Lamar (D-Memphis) would require TBI to test rape kits within 30 days. Currently, law enforcement is required to send the kit to TBI within 30 days, but Tennessee Code doesn’t dictate actually testing them.
If the bill does pass, it’ll also require the TBI to submit a plan for eliminating the current backlog within 45 days of it taking effect—the goal is to have any backlog eliminated by the beginning of 2024.
Sexton: “I think you’ll see a proposal from [Governor Bill Lee’s] office to increase funding for TBI for whatever they need to get ahead of this. I think you’ll see infrastructure put in place to help east, mid and west in that endeavor, as well.”
“The other problem is [scientists] are called to court, which is fine. But that creates another backflow. I think we should have a 24/7, 365 office where it’s around the clock. Let’s have a second and third shift that can help us process this stuff.”
McNally: “I think you’ll see TBI get adequate resources to get rid of that backlog. We’ve been working on that and will continue to work on it until it’s down. There are a lot more of those rape kits that are sent to TBI then in the past. We’ve got some labs, we just need to make sure they have the proper equipment and the proper staff to be able to handle it.”
“One thing is when a result comes back and it is a rape and the DNA is John Doe’s, then the person that did the test can actually be called as a witness to testify. What happens is they call them, it gets delayed. Then it gets delayed again. It’s one of the tricks defense attorneys use, the criminal defense attorneys. I think it could be done, like we do with some of the child abuse things, on video, and their testimony could be used on video. The questions could be asked on a Zoom conference or something like that.”
Johnson: “It’s a multifaceted problem. It is inexcusable for it to take that long to get these kits back with what could be very important DNA information to allow for a prosecution to move forward. We have to do better. We need to give TBI the tools.”
“If we need to do more, we will. There’s a lot of emphasis on crime and wanting to be strong against crime, and this is a key piece of that. We just need to give our good folks at the TBI the resources they need.”
Akbari: “The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation needs additional resources for these rape kit tests and testing of all sorts. I think the most important thing is making sure our lab technicians are paid more so we can recruit and retain them.”
“The TBI doesn’t have the resources or staff to be able to test these kits in the appropriate time. I think that’s something the governor’s office has talked about, so I’m excited to see that through.”
Lamberth: “I have pushed for additional resources for TBI, specifically for the scientists who are testing both blood alcohol and toxicology and rape kits and everything. Every single aspect of what they do over there, they need additional resources.”
“We’ve added resources in, previously, but it needs to be times ten. It needs to be that we fully fund TBI’s mission. I think in the budget this year we will see a significant increase for TBI, and if not, I will be encouraging my friends and colleagues in the legislature to make sure that we do add in additional money to the budget.”
Sexton: “One of the things we’re going to look at is if you commit a violent crime as a juvenile, then there shouldn’t be discretion if you’re tried as a juvenile or an adult. You should automatically be an adult for certain crimes.”
“The other thing we’re going to work with the governor on is supportive housing. So when people go out of prison, they don’t have to go back into their neighborhoods where they’re at high risk to re-offend. So, let’s talk about how we can work with the local governments here in Metro and Shelby County or wherever, and the judges and law enforcement, to give them the resources they need to be successful and get them out of the environment that caused them potentially to get there.”
“I think we’re also going to look at a three-strike policy for violent criminals. If you commit three violent crimes – if you commit second-degree murder or anything, especially aggravated carjackings – and you’ve done that three times in your life, you’re a career criminal. You should probably go to jail, in my opinion, for life without parole.”
McNally: “We need to make sure that the children are protected. As far as violent crimes, we need to crack down on those as best we can. Speaker Sexton and I made some progress with the most violent crimes – they have to serve 100% of their sentence. I think we need to make sure a violent criminal, in many cases is a sociopath, psychopath, we need to separate them from society. Whether it’s with a needle or with prison, I would support both.”
“[Execution] takes way too long. They used to have a trial and the individual would be hung the same day. I’m not quite pushing that type of justice, but I do think having someone on Death Row for 20 years is not productive.”
Hundreds of bills will be up for debate during the 113th General Assembly. Tennessee lawmakers shared their thoughts on some of the major issues up for discussion at this year’s legislative session.
What lawmakers had to say about: Abortion Ban Clarification | Marijuana Reform | Transgender Therapy and LGBTQ+ Rights | Dept. of Children’s Services | Education | Crime/Public Safety | More
You can also find daily coverage from the session here.