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VOL. 129 | NO. 192 | Thursday, October 2, 2014

Commissioner Rethinking Handling of Older Teens

LUCAS L. JOHNSON II | Associated Press

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) – The head of the state Department of Children's Services is considering whether older teens should be moved from the department's custody into the adult correctional system after a third major escape attempt from one of its juvenile detention centers in less than a month.

Eighteen-year-olds were involved in at least two of the three attempts. DCS Commissioner Jim Henry told WKRN-TV earlier this week that 38 percent of the 306 delinquents in the department's custody are 17 or 18, and they cause about 70 percent of the problems.

DCS spokesman Rob Johnson told The Associated Press on Wednesday that Henry is considering whether those teens should be placed in an adult system. Currently in Tennessee, teens can remain in juvenile custody until they're 19.

"It's something that he wants to explore; this notion that we have in our juvenile justice system 17 year olds and 18 year olds and they tend to be ... sometimes more challenging to work with than say a 15 year old," Johnson said.

It's not clear how many states send juveniles to an adult system at the age of 17 or 18. However, a 2012 study by the Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services in the District of Columbia shows 73 percent of states allow youth to remain in juvenile correctional custody until at least age 21.

Everette Parrish, an attorney appointed to defend the civil rights of youths at the Middle Tennessee facility where the escapes occurred, is against sending the teens to an adult facility.

"You mustn't discard these teenagers too soon," he said. "I think these are still young men with a future and an ability to improve their lives and learn from their mistakes, even at age 17 and age 18."

The Woodland Hills facility in Nashville has a long history of violence, allegations of sexual abuse and previous efforts to break out. The Tennessean newspaper reported that between January and early September of this year, there were 145 reported incidents of violence at the facility including 39 assaults by teens on each other and 51 assaults by teens on staff.

Last Friday night, authorities said 13 teens escaped from the Woodland Hills complex after overpowering a guard and squeezing through the main gate. All of them were apprehended by Sunday morning.

That incident followed a Sept. 1 breakout by 32 teens. All but two were later caught or turned in. Two nights later riots erupted in the facility. The teens did not get past the perimeter fence during that incident.

Henry told the AP on Monday that he plans to seek court approval to be able to lock the teens in their rooms and to give guards access to tear gas in emergencies. But he said he does not support arming the guards.

Henry has requested a security audit be performed on the Nashville facility and the other two centers in East and West Tennessee.

Tennessee has been operating its youth detention centers under a consent decree stemming from a 1976 class action lawsuit about the treatment of juveniles. Under the most recent agreement from 1987, the state is barred from locking teens' rooms from the inside and from using tear gas.

Republican Gov. Bill Haslam told reporters Wednesday it's time to review that decree.

"One of the things is to go back and look at the court order from 25 years ago and say ... we think this has not proved to be a practical, good, policy for the state of Tennessee," he said.

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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