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VOL. 132 | NO. 257 | Thursday, December 28, 2017

Panel Finds Juvenile Court Standards Lacking

By Bill Dries

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There is a lack of guidance from the state to juvenile courts across the state and a lack of consistency among those courts in how they deal with juveniles, according to a 25-page report issued this month by a joint ad hoc Tennessee Blue Ribbon Task Force of the Tennessee Legislature.

“Due to the lack of standards, the same youth charged with theft might have three completely different paths in three different jurisdictions,” the report reads. “In one jurisdiction, the youth might be diverted from court processing, in another that same youth might be adjudicated, and in another the youth might be transferred to the adult system.”

The report comes at the end of an eventful year for juvenile justice locally.


Juvenile Court Judge Dan Michael, along with Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell and Sheriff Bill Oldham sought to end U.S. Department of Justice oversight of juvenile court on due process and racial disparity issues in a 2012 settlement between the court, the county and DOJ.

Federal officials ultimately dropped parts of the settlement agreement where independent monitors found substantial compliance. But they kept in place oversight of disproportionate minority contact – instances in which a black juvenile is treated differently than a white juvenile in court for the same offense or incident.

The blue ribbon panel’s statewide view was that “racial disparities persist in counties across the state for all types of delinquent petitions.”

“Black youth have greater representation at each stage of the juvenile justice system when compared to the general youth population,” the report issued this month reads. “In particular, black youth make up 34 percent of the youth population included in the analysis, but account for 59 percent of all delinquent petitions, 66 percent of adjudications, and 74 percent of adult transfer cases.”

Most of the cases in Memphis-Shelby County Juvenile Court that are referred for diversion – 73 percent – are done so on an informal basis, according to the report.

Among the recommendations coming from the task force report:

Click image for the full Blue Ribbon Panel Juvenile Justice Report.

• Changing zero-tolerance policies in school systems to include more discretion short of suspension and expulsion for drug possession, including a diversion treatment program.

• Allowing police officers and other law enforcement to write tickets or citations for misdemeanor offenses instead of taking a child to juvenile court.

• Having school administrators show they have attempted to intervene in other ways before having a school security officer petition to have a child taken to juvenile court for offenses that fall short of a serious threat to school safety. That includes a recommendation that school officers be more limited in their involvement in discipline and enforcing school rules.

• That information obtained from a child under 14 during an interrogation cannot be used against that youth in criminal or transfer proceedings unless the child’s attorney is present. It would be considered a rebuttable presumption.

• That not child under 12 years old be detained more than 24 hours unless “there is a written judicial finding of extraordinary and special circumstances.”

The conclusions are among the summer study committee reports Tennessee legislators are considering before their return to session next month.

The report also concludes:

• Nearly half of the juveniles placed “out of home” by courts wind up there because of misdemeanor or “unruly” offenses and technical violations.

• The number of youth in “out-of-home” placement has dropped over the past five years, but youth in juvenile custody are staying 10 percent longer in those placements with an average of 4.4 placements while in the custody of Department of Children’s Services.

• DCS spends $230,000 per bed per year on placing juveniles. The cost is 27 times higher than the cost of state probation.

• Local juvenile courts largely determine access to pre-court diversion and with no statewide guidance there are inconsistent outcomes from one jurisdiction to another. The same goes for data and information sharing from jurisdiction to jurisdiction.

The 21-member task force included state Sen. Republican leader Mark Norris of Collierville; state Sen. Brian Kelsey of Germantown, who is chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee; state Rep. Karen Camper of Memphis; Memphis-Shelby County Juvenile Court Judge Dan Michael; and Dr. Altha Stewart, director of the Center for Health in Justice Involved Youth at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center.

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