Legislative Update from State Senator Joey Hensley April 7, 2021


   Truth in Sentencing legislation ensures certain violent or sexual offenders will serve 100% of their sentences

   Several major public safety bills advanced in the Tennessee Senate during the week of March 29th, including “Truth in Sentencing” legislation which strengthens protections for victims and their families. Senate Bill 717 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.

   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. The average sentence currently imposed on a person convicted of rape is 7.05 years, while 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. 

   Legislation aids emergency responders

   Several bills supporting Tennessee’s emergency responders were approved in the Tennessee Senate.  This includes the “James ‘Dustin’ Samples Act to allow professional firefighters to file for worker’s compensation if they have been diagnosed with work-related Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Senate Bill 1023 aims to remove barriers to care and reduce the stigma attached with seeking mental health resources for PTSD. 

   Research consistently shows that firefighters experience PTSD at higher rates than most professions, with some studies showing rates as high as 37%. The current protocol is a firefighter must identify a singular incident and prove it is the cause of their PTSD. This bill states that when a firefighter seeks treatment for PTSD, there is a presumption that it is a work-related injury. The bill is named for a Cleveland Fire Department captain who died in December after 22 years of honorable service to his community.

   In other action, the full Senate gave final approval to legislation protecting federal law enforcement officers and their families by providing confidentiality regarding certain personal information. This law already exists for state law enforcement officers to protect them from criminals who would harass or harm them or their families in act of revenge for work done in the line of duty. Senate Bill 475 adds federal law enforcement agents who are conducting an operation within Tennessee to the list of records which are considered confidential and not open for public inspection. 

   Legislation benefitting Tennessee Highway Patrol officers who retire between 25 years and 30 years of service was also approved by the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee. Currently, state employees must serve a full 30 years to receive 80 percent of the scheduled premiums which cover their health insurance costs. Senate Bill 1607 lowers the threshold to 25 years of service to provide full benefits to officers who retire a few years earlier, covering any mandatory retirements.

   In addition, state senators gave final approval to Senate Bill 995 to aid emergency rescue workers. Under current law, there is a legal presumption that any full-time firefighter, paramedic, Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) or Advanced EMT who is infected with either HIV or hepatitis C was inflicted with the disease on the job. These public employees are specifically defined because they provide emergency medical aid to the public in the regular course of their employment without the protections available in a typical healthcare setting. In response to the COVID-19 epidemic, this bill would broaden the legal presumption to include infectious diseases for which the World Health Organization or federal Center of Disease Control has declared a pandemic and the governor has issued a state of emergency. The bill now goes to Governor Bill Lee for his signature.