Legislative Update from State Senator Joey Hensley February 19, 2020

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   Legislation stiffens penalties for those convicted of drug-facilitated sexual assault

   Committees worked at “full steam” during the week of February 10th as we examined the budgets of 16 agencies and departments of state government and approved a number of important bills. The budget hearings, which will continue through March 11th, are part of the process of reviewing how taxpayer dollars are spent to determine if the money is being used efficiently and effectively to meet the state’s goals. They also provide lawmakers with an opportunity to talk with state officials about a wide variety of important state issues. 

   Among important bills advancing through Senate Committees is a proposal to strengthen penalties for those convicted of drug-facilitated sexual assault. Senate Bill 2000 would add a qualifying category to Tennessee’s aggravated rape laws when a defendant gives a controlled substance or narcotic drug to the victim for the purpose of rendering them incapacitated or unconscious. These substances make it easier for a perpetrator to commit sexual assault because they inhibit a person’s ability to resist and can prevent them from even remembering the assault.

   Currently, the crime is punishable as a Class B felony with an average 6.48 years in prison.  The legislation would stiffen penalties to a Class A felony, which carries an average sentence of 28.69 years behind bars.

   According to the U.S. Department of Justice, there are no conclusive estimates as to the number of drug-facilitated sexual assaults that occur each year; however, nationwide law enforcement reporting indicates that the number of such assaults appears to be increasing. Many drug-facilitated sexual assaults are not reported. Victims often are reluctant to report incidents because of a sense of embarrassment, guilt, or perceived responsibility, or because they lack specific recall of the assault.

   The Senate Judiciary Committee also approved Senate Bill 1731 to add a member of the Tennessee Alcoholic Beverage Commission (TABC) to the Human Trafficking Advisory Council. Over the last two years, TABC agents have been instrumental in identifying and cooperating with local authorities to halt several cases of human trafficking in Tennessee. 

   State legislators have approved a series of bills over the past eight years addressing the problem after a 2011 Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (TBI) report showed 73 of the state’s 95 counties have reported the crime within their borders. These legislative efforts earned Tennessee Shared Hope International’s highest ranking in the nation for fighting human trafficking.

   Senate acts to give voters an opportunity to embed the state’s Right to Work law into the state’s constitution

   The State Senate gave final approval to a resolution allowing voters to embed the state’s Right to Work (RTW) law into Tennessee’s Constitution. Senate Joint Resolution 648, which I have signed on to, protects the right of Tennesseans to join or refuse to join a labor union or employee organization, saying it should always be a “fundamental civil right.”

   Currently, there is legislation at the federal level seeking to undermine all state RTW laws, among many anti-business provisions. This includes the PRO Act bill which was approved by the U.S. House of Representatives that would eliminate RTW laws enacted in 27 states. Nine states have already acted to adopt RTW constitutional amendments. 

   In addition, there are moves to repeal RTW laws at the state level. There is an effort in Virginia to abolish their law which has been on the books since 1947, the same year Tennessee enacted its law giving workers a choice. 

   The resolution now goes to the House of Representatives for their approval. The resolution must pass the General Assembly by a simple majority this year and by a two-thirds majority during the 2021 or 2022 legislative session in order to appear on the ballot for a statewide referendum in November 2022. The amendment would become part of the state constitution if adopted by a majority of votes cast in the governor’s election.