NASHVILLE — Chattanooga Mayor Ron Littlefield says he believes his anti-gang proposals are “moving in the right direction” at the state Capitol.
“I had a brief discussion with [Gov. Bill Haslam] about our additional gang legislation,” Littlefield said last week. “I won’t put words in his mouth, but he nodded at the right times, and I’m hopeful that our legislative delegation will help carry those through.”
Littlefield and the mayors of Knoxville, Nashville and Memphis met with Haslam last week on several issues.
Chattanooga’s chief executive said he didn’t broach the costs of his two sweeping proposals, which mete out longer sentences for gang members committing crimes, but he said his proposals “are not incompatible” with Haslam’s own anti-gang package.
“So I think that we’re moving in the right direction. I’m hopeful that it’ll come out intact,” he said.
Haslam spokesman David Smith said by email that Haslam’s multiyear legislation is funded at $6 million in the governor’s budget.
“We’d certainly have to see a fiscal note and legislation before we comment specifically on any bill, but at this time, we’re focused on our legislation,” Smith said.
The governor’s package would increase prison time for violent felons who are found with guns and for two or more people acting in concert to commit a crime involving force.
One Littlefield bill would make it a felony to aid or abet members of a street gang who are committing crimes. The other applies the state’s Racketeer-Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act to gangs.
To date, legislative analysts haven’t put a price tag on either bill. But lawmakers and law enforcement officials say the mayor’s proposals cast a wide net and could prove expensive.
“I think there probably will be a cost attached to it,” said House Republican Floor Leader Vince Dean, of East Ridge, who is sponsoring Littlefield’s bills in the House. “Any time you lengthen jail time there’s a cost to it. ... It certainly can’t help it.”
Dean expects the bills to come up in committee in about two weeks.
House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, said Chattanooga has a “serious” gang problem.
He said city officials “are hoping some of their ideas get mixed in with the governor’s and they’d be a positive force. I don’t think they believe they’ll get it funded this year, but if they can get it moving in that direction,” it can help.
Littlefield said that Haslam, as a former Knoxville mayor, “knows there’s a cost to something like gang activity and to ignore it because there’s a cost associated with incarceration or something of that nature is false economy.”
The fiscal note will examine how many additional felons would be created each year under a bill and what the cost would be to house them in prison.
The practice of assessing the impact of crime laws began in the 1980s. Laws requiring tougher sentences for gun crimes weren’t matched with increased state funding for new prisons under Gov. Lamar Alexander. That led to overcrowding and worsening inmate conditions.
A federal court in 1983 ruled conditions violated the U.S. Constitution and appointed a special master over the prison system.
After prison riots in the summer of 1985 caused millions of dollars in damage, Alexander and the General Assembly passed a slew of legislation seeking to stem the flow. That included ensuring taxpayer dollars were available to house prisoners created through new crime laws.
Andy Sher is a Nashville-based staff writer covering Tennessee state government and politics for the Times Free Press. A Washington correspondent from 1999-2005 for the Times Free Press, Andy previously headed up state Capitol coverage for The Chattanooga Times, worked as a state Capitol reporter for The Nashville Banner and was a contributor to The Tennessee Journal, among other publications. Andy worked for 17 years at The Chattanooga Times covering police, health care, county government, ...