Enhancing criminal penalties has long been a favored pursuit of lawmakers, the major restraint on this inclination being the cost to taxpayers of locking up the wrongdoers and provisions of state law and legislative rules that say the enhanced spending must be covered in the state budget.
An interesting debate back in the 2013 legislative session, worthy of more attention than it received as us media types focused on stuff deemed more interesting in the fast-action session, concerned what may be seen an evolution of compromise in this inherent conflict.
That is, enhance the punishment, but only when the victim is a member of a chosen profession.
The chosen professional victims in this year’s session were doctors, nurses and other health care providers in one bill (HB306) and firefighters and emergency workers in another (SB66). Starting July 1, the effective date of both new laws, if you, for example, punch an on-the-job paramedic (covered by both laws), the maximum penalty upon conviction of assault will be more severe than if you punched a preacher, a retired grandmother or a newspaper reporter.
“This is a slippery slope,” declared Rep. Susan Lynn, R-Mount Juliet, in House floor debate after observing that the health care provider bill creates “a special protected class.” She likened the situation to legislators in a past century who passed laws saying “some people are more valuable than others” — as in white males, who could vote, unlike females, and who could not become slaves, unlike blacks.
“Where do we stop?,” Lynn asked. “Who will be next?”
Actually, legislators stepped upon this particular slippery slope a few years back when they voted to enhance the penalty for assault upon a law enforcement officer.
The bill was sponsored in the Senate by a doctor, Republican Sen. Mark Green of Clarksville, and in the House by a nurse, Democratic Rep. JoAnn Favors of Chattanooga. It may thus be seen as a bipartisan effort.
Both sponsors noted this and otherwise argued reasonably for passage. Statistics show, they said, that health care providers are far more likely to be victims of assault than average folks because they deal with drug addicts in emergency rooms and the like. And Nevada passed a similar law back in 2005, they advised, and by 2010 assaults on health care workers had declined substantially.
The bill passed the House 63-31 with all no votes coming from Republicans — and a handful of other Republicans refusing to vote either way while all Democrats stood with their partisan colleague, Favors, especially after a round of Republican speeches against the measure.
A suspicion is that, if the sponsor had been a Republican, the result would have been more akin to the vote in the Senate, where that was the situation. There, the bill passed 31-1. The sole no vote came from Sen. Stacey Campfield, R-Knoxville, though Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown, delivered an eloquent speech declaring that what legislators really should be doing is increasing penalties for all assaults on everybody, not just those of a given profession.
The overriding principle here perhaps should, indeed, be equal treatment under the law.
Theoretically, a police officer assaulting a homeless man should be subject to the same penalty as a homeless person assaulting a police officer.
The flip side of the enhanced penalties for some categories is reduced penalties for the chosen professionals when they target a victim not within a protected class. So when a policeman hits a homeless man, the punishment in the eyes of state law is lighter than when the homeless man hits a policeman.
As a political reality, however, homeless people have no political clout in the Legislature. Law enforcement officers do. Ditto with firefighters and health care providers, who collectively have maybe 100 PACs giving money to legislative campaigns and employ almost as many lobbyists.
Now, the health care provider bill was watered down to avoid a “fiscal note,” the Legislatorland term for covering the estimated cost of incarceration in the state budget.
Instead of increasing the time an attacker spends in jail, he or she will instead only have to pay a bigger fine. This likely makes the new law little more than a symbolic gesture.
On that basis, the slope is likely very slippery indeed. But it’s safe to say that the homeless will not be the next step.
(Note: This is an unedited version of a column appearing in Sunday’s News Sentinel. The edited version is HERE.)