(NASHVILLE), April 2, 2021 – Several major public safety bills advanced in the Tennessee Senate this week, including “Truth in Sentencing” legislation which strengthens protections for victims and their families. Senate Bill 717<https://wapp.capitol.tn.gov/apps/BillInfo/Default.aspx?BillNumber=SB0717>, sponsored by Lt. Governor Randy McNally (R-Oak Ridge), Senator Mike Bell (R-Riceville), and House Speaker Cameron Sexton (R-Crossville), ensures certain violent or sexual offenders serve 100 percent of the sentence imposed by a judge or jury. It 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.
“Part of criminal justice reform is drawing a bold, bright line between those crimes for which we can show mercy and allow some flexibility in sentencing and those we cannot,” said Lt. Gov. McNally. “Certain crimes are so heinous and take such a toll on victims that there can be no leniency. More and more, the actual sentences being served by rapists, child molesters and sex traffickers are being reduced, often significantly. That practice must end, and this bill ensures it.”
While the legislation does not remove judicial discretion, it ensures that parole or probation are not options for those found guilty of crimes that fall into these categories. The person will still be permitted to earn eligible credits which increase their privileges, reduce their security classification, and any others which do not reduce the sentence imposed on them by the court.
“This bill is the first attempt I have really seen to put truth in sentencing in Tennessee law,” added Senator Bell. “It specifically addresses sexual assault sentencing and crimes against children to strengthen our statutes, protect victims, and ensure sentences imposed on offenders of these crimes are not reduced by credits.”
While the average sentence currently imposed on a person convicted of rape is 7.05 years, only 4.64 years are generally served. Similarly, the average sentence for a person convicted of sexual battery is 3.26 years, with generally 2.41 years served.
The legislation was approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee and now moves to the Senate Finance, Ways and Means Committee for consideration of the cost.
Jim Coley Protection for Rape Survivors Act — In other Senate Judiciary Committee action, members approved the Jim Coley Protection for Rape Survivors Act, a victim-centered bill that aims to decrease rape kit backlogs and provide more transparency regarding the process.
In the immediate aftermath of a sexual assault, a victim may choose or be asked to undergo a forensic examination to collect any evidence. This evidence is preserved in a sexual assault evidence collection kit, commonly referred to as a rape kit, which can be a very powerful tool to bring a perpetrator to justice.
Senate Bill 1035<https://wapp.capitol.tn.gov/apps/BillInfo/Default.aspx?BillNumber=SB1035>, also sponsored by Sen. Bell, makes sure the handling procedure of rape kits is responsive, reliable and consistent. Law enforcement agencies would be required to retrieve sexual assault evidence kits from medical providers within seven days of notification, then turn them over to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (TBI) within 45 days. Currently, they have 60 days to turn them over. Law enforcement will also be required to store a kit for ten years until the statute of limitation expires.
In addition, the legislation requires the TBI to develop and implement an electronic system that tracks the location and status of each rape kit released to law enforcement on or after July 1, 2022. Victims would be able to access the system through a tracking number and must be notified 60 days before destruction or disposal of the evidence. The tracking system will utilize the Sexual Assault Management (SAMS)<https://olis.leg.state.or.us/liz/2017I1/Downloads/CommitteeMeetingDocument/139637> System portal to provide this information to victims to increase transparency regarding their rape kit.
The legislation now moves to the Senate floor for final consideration