Why Some Experts Say An Attempt To Reform Juvenile Justice In Tennessee Came Up Short | Nashville Public Radio

Why Some Experts Say An Attempt To Reform Juvenile Justice In Tennessee Came Up Short

May 16, 2018

Gov. Bill Haslam is on the verge of signing a measure called the Juvenile Justice Reform Act, which was supposed to bring about major changes to how Tennessee handles young people who misbehave.

But some who worked on the measure say, after state lawmakers made last-minute changes, it's coming up far short of its promise.

The goal was to keep kids from being locked up for minor offenses like truancy or violating curfew. Those wouldn't be considered crimes if the culprits were adults, but in Tennessee, minors often wind up getting sent to a youth development center — or as a last resort, something more dire: an adult jail.

That greatly lowers the chances they'll turn their lives around before they grow up. And it's not what Dean Rivkin, a professor at the University of Tennessee, says state law recognizes as the focus of juvenile courts: 

"Treatment and rehabilitation, and not punishment."

He served on one of the two expert panels convened to write the Juvenile Justice Reform Act's first draft. And he's not happy with where House Bill 2271/Senate Bill 2261 ended up.

"The original bill ... was gutted," he says. "(It) is really the best word that I can use."

What Rivkin and other experts wanted to do was curb the power of the state's juvenile court judges. They currently have broad discretion to handle troublesome teens as they see fit — take them into state custody, put them on probation or require them to go into programs, like boot camps or Scared Straight, that may not have good track records.

But Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris, the measure's main sponsor, says many judges don't want to give up their power.

"And all it takes is a phone call from one of those juvenile court judges to one member of the House and one member of the Senate, to say whatever they'll say," he complained to lawmakers shortly before they took a final vote, "and it has a chilling effect."

In the end, legislators turned many of the bill's strictest provisions into guidelines.

But Norris says the measure has retained some positives, like providing $4.5 million for programming in rural areas, where there are fewer alternatives to incarceration. He hopes that will steer more judges away from locking juveniles up.