Today, Tennessee becomes the first state in America to make it a felony to camp on public property such as parks, a move clearly designed to break up homeless encampments.
The law, among a number of new laws that take effect July 1, requires that violators receive at least a 24-hour notice before an arrest. The felony charge is punishable by up to six years in prison and includes the loss of voting rights. It will also be a misdemeanor for camping around highways any time, not just overnight. This also requires a warning first.
Sheriff Tommy Myers doesn’t like the new law, saying an unintended consequence is, “It will fill up our jails.”
Warren County has a growing homeless population with some of those people spending time around city parks and Milner Recreation Center.
“We’ll give them a warning and try to get them to move on,” said McMinnville Police Chief Nichole Mosley. “If they don’t, we’ll cite them or arrest them if we have to. The charge is a felony.”
HOME is a nonprofit that’s been working with homeless in Warren County for more than two years. HOME director Sheila Fann calls the new state law “a travesty.”
“This law was not well thought out,” said Fann. “Now we’re going to arrest people for being homeless. If they are homeless, chances are they don’t have any money or any family members who are willing to help them so when they get arrested they aren’t going to have any way to bond out of jail so they are going to sit there. Then they are going to inundate our court system even more.”
District Attorney General Lisa Zavogiannis was instrumental in another state law which takes effect Friday. A product named ZaZa has been made a controlled substance and is now only available by prescription. It had previously been sold over the counter at gas stations and vape stores.
“I had letters from people in our Drug Court who have been affected by ZaZa so I brought those letters to the attention of state lawmakers and other district attorneys at our DA’s conference,” said Zavogiannis, who indicated ZaZa is marketed as a stimulant and can produce a meth-like high. “I was the mouthpiece behind this, the one who started the fire.”
Those are just two of a long slate of new state laws that become active July 1. Other noteworthy laws involve transgender athletes, books which can be banned in school libraries, and longer criminal sentences.
The state’s GOP-controlled General Assembly and Republican Gov. Bill Lee signed off on hundreds of bills earlier this year during their annual legislative session. Lee also let several laws take effect without signing them.
The $52.8 billion spending plan for 2022-23 includes a one-month sales tax holiday on groceries planned for August, a $750 million boost to K-12 schools and $100 million in violent crime reduction grants.
It also has a $121 million break to waive the state portion of vehicle registration tag fees over the next year, which comes down to $23.75 per vehicle. Other breaks will eliminate $9.7 million worth of a professional privilege tax for doctors and will provide $68 million for one-year broadband tax relief.
TRUTH IN SENTENCING
Despite concerns from the governor’s office and criminal justice advocates, lawmakers passed a bill that will lengthen criminal sentences and potentially increase incarceration costs. Known as the “truth in sentencing bill,” the measure will require serving entire sentences for various felonies, which legislative leaders argue ensures justice for victims. Those include attempted first-degree murder, vehicular homicide resulting from the driver’s intoxication, carjacking and especially aggravated robbery.
Separately, 12 other offenses would require inmates to serve at least 85% of their sentences. Those range from reckless homicide, aggravated arson, voluntary manslaughter to possessing or aggravated kidnapping.
As a sign of his unease with the bill, Lee allowed it to go into law without his signature — sparking harsh rebukes from GOP legislative leaders who argue the new law will hold those who break the law more accountable.
School libraries were a common target of lawmakers this year in Tennessee and nationwide, with many accusing librarians of providing inappropriate materials to students and demanding more transparency in how books are selected and removed from shelves.
After introducing a flurry of bills, the Tennessee Legislature ultimately moved to let the state’s politically appointed Textbook Commission remove books from public school libraries statewide. The panel will have veto power when people appeal decisions by local school boards in book removal challenges.
Meanwhile, under a separate law, school libraries will be required to post their contents online and regularly review their policies to ensure materials are age-appropriate and “suitable.”
Last year, Lee signed off on banning transgender athletes from participating in girls sports. Even though none of the supporters could point to an incident where this has become an issue in Tennessee, lawmakers returned this year to add harsh penalties against schools that violate this ban. Furthermore, Tennessee will now ban transgender athletes from participating in female college sports.
A new law strictly limits the ability of local governments to stop oil and gas pipelines and other fossil fuel infrastructure projects in their jurisdictions.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.