Coalition seeks enhanced punishment for gangs, street terrorists

By Kathy Helms-Hughes

STAR STAFF

   Tennessee's crime rate ranks 10th in the nation. But Tennessee Public Safety Coalition finds that a dubious distinction and Tuesday set out on a tour of the state to convey the need for legislative action to help curtail this trend.
   The coalition which is made up of representatives from the Tennessee District Attorneys General Conference, the Tennessee Association of Chiefs of Police, and the Tennessee Sheriff's Association, met Tuesday morning in Blountville.
   Kingsport District Attorney General Greeley Wells, as well as district attorneys from Knox County and Memphis, joined Washington County Sheriff Fred Phillips, Sullivan County Sheriff Wayne Anderson, and members of Johnson City Police Department, among others, to discuss lobbying for passage of legislation that calls for enhanced punishment for certain offenders.
   District Attorney Joe Crumley of the First Judicial District said, "There are four main things that they're trying to do. One of them is to put some teeth in gang-related crimes. Sometimes we'll get gang graffiti under bridges and overpasses, so we know it's here.
   "There's one called the 'street terrorism bill' which would enhance penalties for groups of three or more committing violent crimes," Crumley said. Other proposed legislation includes "the crooks with guns bill" which calls for stiffer penalties for convicted felons with illegal guns.
   Another piece of legislation would increase staffing in the offices of district attorneys general offices "to be able to get the cases into court quicker," Crumley said. The group also is seeking a portion of tobacco settlement money for comprehensive drug treatment through drug courts.
   "One thing I thought was interesting was they did a study, and in some of the more affected places for getting cases into court, New York City has about 26 prosecutors per 100,000 citizens. We have 11 per 200,000. I'd like to have at least one more for Carter County, one for Unicoi, and one for Johnson County."
   Crumley said local legislators have been supportive in the past, but this year, "the hard part is going to be the money. If you look at the overall budget, law enforcement is really a small amount compared to a lot of the areas such as education and highways."
   The coalition believes safety of Tennessee citizens is being jeopardized by the state government's budget crisis and is encouraging the General Assembly to address the crisis to ensure less crime in the state.
   A study performed in 1998 told Crumley his office needed approximately 6-1/2 prosecutors. "I'm still trying to figure out the 'half,' " he said.
   "They were going to try to get it in, in three years -- one prosecutor the first year, one the second year, and two the third year. It was actually voted on in 1999 but not funded. I think it would have to be put back before the Legislature and them vote on it again, but I think it would greatly help us if we did have that," Crumley said.
   The coalition traveled Tuesday evening to Knoxville for a press conference, headed to Chattanooga and Nashville on Wednesday, and will wrap up the tour on Friday in Memphis, Crumley said.
   "We'll just be working with the Legislature to try to get these bills through to try to emphasize public safety in Tennessee," he said.