BY KEN LITTLE
C. Berkeley Bell, district attorney general for the Third Judicial District, said in a news release that he and other Tennessee district attorneys general want new laws to enable better prosecution of serial child sex abuse cases and to increase punishment for child neglect.
The Third Judicial District includes Greene, Hamblen, Hawkins and Hancock counties.
The Tennessee District Attorneys General Conference, which met recently in Nashville, will continue to advocate for changes in state laws during the 2014 legislative session "to better enable prosecution of serial child sexual abusers and to increase punishment for child neglect," according to the news release.
One proposed law would allow a serial child sexual abuser to be prosecuted in a single trial, even if abuses occurred in multiple judicial districts.
Currently, defendants accused of multiple counts of child sexual abuse in different jurisdictions must be tried separately in each jurisdiction.
The duplication "is a tremendous burden for victims and their families," conference Executive Director James W. Kirby said.
The bill is currently under consideration by the Senate and House financial committees.
MORE ASSISTANTS SOUGHT
Bell said the district attorneys general will also continue to seek legislative approval for additional assistant district attorneys in judicial districts that have seen the largest caseload increases since 2006.
That was the year when the General Assembly last approved the hiring of new prosecutors by district attorneys general.
But the Third Judicial District has seen a big increase in cases since 2006, many of which are related to the prescription pill abuse epidemic, prosecutors have said.
"My fellow district attorneys, along with our staff members, have the responsibility of protecting the public -- and that specifically includes protecting kids -- by prosecuting criminal cases on behalf of the state," Bell said.
'CASELOAD HAS GROWN'
Bell said that the proposed legislation will make it easier to prosecute "serial [sex offenders] who go from county to county."
"We're simply trying to create a different venue situation," Bell said.
There were 730 such cases prosecuted last year in Greene County Criminal Court, some of which included multiple offenses.
Bell said the job of prosecuting so many cases is challenging and is made more difficult "without the appropriate resources."
The "need for additional staff continues to grow, as our caseload has grown," Bell emphasized.
The district attorneys also seek to increase the minimum amount of time that must be served before an inmate is eligible for parole to 85 percent for two specific crimes: aggravated child neglect and attempted first-degree murder where there is serious bodily injury.
"Most crimes in Tennessee require only 30 percent of a sentence to be served in jail or prison," Kirby said.
"Right now, there are individuals who are convicted of extremely serious child neglect, cases in which children suffer as much as those who are victims of physical abuse, who end up serving relatively short sentences."
OTHER LEGISLATIVE GOALS
Other legislative priorities the district attorneys conference will address during the upcoming legislative session include:
* providing greater fairness to crime victims and juries by requiring the prosecution and defense to disclose a list of potential witnesses prior to trial;
* allowing a photograph of a homicide victim to be introduced during trial depicting the victim prior to the homicide;
* allowing search warrants to be requested and issued electronically. Standards and criteria for search warrants would be unchanged.