While the state’s prison population is ballooning beyond budget projections, legislators are expressing growing frustration that the cost of incarceration — estimated in “fiscal notes” accompanying each bill — may block many new efforts to crack down on crime.
“In my eyes, fiscal notes are what prevents us from giving due punishment to these perpetrators,” declared Rep. Terri Lynn Weaver, R-Lancaster, after listening to testimony about sex trafficking involving minors. “In my eyes the cost of a bullet is 37 cents. The cost of a rope is less. And that’s the problem with our system.”
The bill that prompted Weaver’s wish for a simpler penalty alternative to prison (HB131) would revise a law enacted last year that increased the sentence for sex trafficking involving a minor 15 years old or younger. This year’s measure would expand that to cover as well those 16 or 17 years old.
The fiscal note estimates this would cost taxpayers $137,500 per year. It is part of a four-bill package of sex trafficking legislation that sponsor Rep. Jim Coley, R-Bartlett, says has a combined cost of about $500,000.
The House Criminal Justice Subcommittee approved all four bills unanimously. The real test for such bills — there are dozens of measures enhancing criminal penalties filed this year — will come in the House Budget Committee and its subcommittee. With few exceptions, those that are not part of Gov. Bill Haslam’s budget plan for the coming year will be rejected.”
Officially, every bill that calls for spending outside the governor’s budget is “flagged” — opposed — by the Haslam administration, according to his press secretary, David Smith. But legislators with anti-crime bills say they’re talking with the administration to see if some measures can be added to the budget later in the legislative session. If not, lawmakers have the option of approving some spending beyond the Haslam plan, provided the overall budget is balanced.
“The governor believes one of the primary functions of state government is to provide for the safety of its citizens,” Smith said in an email. “That can be achieved through multiple avenues, such as increasing penalties for certain crimes or funding drug courts to offer rehabilitation services rather than prison time, and as governor, he tries to strike a balance.”
The Haslam budget does include $27,500 for a bill (HB196) changing definitions for “criminal gang offense” to include more activities in that category, which under present law calls for longer sentences than the same acts without a gang involved.
At the same time, the governor’s budget plan includes an acknowledgment that prison incarceration costs were dramatically underestimated last year. The governor calls for a “supplemental appropriation” of $41 million during the current fiscal year to pay for keeping felony convicts in local jails beyond the amount estimated when the current budget was enacted.
Further, Haslam proposes to increase the recurring Department of Correction’s budget for payments to local jails by another $48 million in the coming fiscal year because of expanding prisoner population. Also in the budget is $30 million for an additional 512 beds at Bledsoe County Correctional Complex beyond its current designated capacity.
State government is responsible for the cost of housing felons, while misdemeanor offenders serve their time in local jails. There are currently about 21,000 inmates in state prisons or prisons operated by private contractors for the state and another 10,000 state inmates in local jails. Another 79,000 are under state-supervised probation or parole.
At least 15 counties, meanwhile, also are dealing with crowding issues, according to testimony before a legislative committee last week.
Corrections Commissioner Derrick Schofield told the House Finance Committee that the department has retained a consultant to make projections of future prison growth and, at the same time, is looking for ways to hold down costs. Studies are also afoot to find ways to divert some offenders away from prison that could be implemented with cooperation of judges and legislators.
Haslam’s budget for the coming year includes $1.6 million to expand “drug courts” into more areas. The courts allow some offenders to go into treatment programs rather than prison. Schofield also said he would like to see more “community correction” programs, which allow inmates to stay out of prison — or get out early — if they meet various conditions.
“If we do nothing and we only try to build through this, we’ll be back year after year saying we need more,” the commissioner said.
Finance Chairman Charles Sargent observed that the Correction Department budget has gone from about $500 million to more than $900 million over the past five years.
One member, Rep. Johnny Shaw, D-Jackson, suggested that may relate to legislators’ desire to “clamp down on crime every session.
Here are some examples of bills filed this year where the Fiscal Review Committee staff has made an assessment of the prison costs that would result based on $64.17 per day average expense of keeping a felony inmate behind bars.
HB37 increases the penalty for selling, giving or loaning a gun or switchblade knife to a juvenile. Estimated incarceration cost $42,200 per year.
HB99 increases the penalty for assault when the victim is a law enforcement officer, fireman or emergency worker. Estimated incarceration cost $1,728,300 per year.
HB357 creates the felony crime of “organ trafficking,” or obtaining a human organ without permission for sale. Estimated incarceration cost $246,900 per year.
HB365 makes it a felony to bring “imitation controlled substances” into Tennessee for sale. Estimated incarceration cost $886,000 per year.
SB140 says that death resulting from domestic violence, if the perpetrator had a history of domestic abuse, will be considered first degree murder and not any lesser form of murder. Estimated incarceration cost $3,750,100 per year.
HB525 increases sentence for vehicular homicide in cases where the offender had a blood alcohol content of .20 or higher, or when methamphetamine was found in a blood test. Estimated incarceration cost $445,800 per year.
HB543 says that possession of a cell phone in a prison – by a prisoner or anyone else – without the prison supervisors permission will become a felony. Estimated incarceration cost $150,308,200.
SB409 makes it a felony to engage in any criminal conduct as a member of a “criminal gang,” as defined under current law, within 1,000 feet of a school. Estimated incarceration cost $2,294,400.
Estimates are still in the works for some other bills.
Examples include HB65, making “aggravated criminal littering” – involving more than 100 pounds of 30 cubic feet in volume – a felony and HB1295, which makes it a felony for a pregnant woman to knowingly take a narcotic drug, if it results in a child born with an addiction.