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VOL. 132 | NO. 8 | Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Task Force Prepared for Juvenile Justice Legislation

BY SAM STOCKARD

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A General Assembly-led panel is backing legislation to change juvenile sexting laws and adopt measures to stop teens from being held in detention for minor offenses as part of an effort to improve juvenile justice.

Mark Norris

In addition, the Juvenile Justice Realignment Task Force is seeking the renewal of about $360,000 for data programs after Congress removed the money from its budget for the coming year.

After six months of work, the group led by Sen. Mark Norris of Collierville approved its final recommendations Monday, a day before the 110th General Assembly was to convene. 

The Republican Senate Majority leader believes the task force’s efforts will lead to immediate bills on several fronts, in addition to a crucial study by either the PEW Center or another group to study what direction juvenile justice should take in Tennessee. This could determine whether juvenile justice remains in the Department of Children’s Services or is broken out into a separate division.

Asked how it affects Shelby County, Norris said, “What I hope it means is more effective disposition of bad kids as well as good kids, because we’ve got a lot of bad actors that need harsh justice and I’m afraid they’re not getting it. And we’ve got a lot of typical kids that may get mixed up in bad stuff, and they need to be culled out of the system and straightened out early.”

One of the group’s recommendations approved Monday deals with providing quality attorneys to juvenile offenders. Legislation is likely to be proposed, as well, to make sure delinquent children can talk to an attorney, parent or guardian before being interviewed by police. A measure in that vein stalled in 2016.

The group discussed whether teens accused of status offenses such as truancy, running away from home and smoking should have consultation with an appointed attorney, a situation that could be extremely expensive.

But task force member and Shelby County Juvenile Court Judge Dan Michael set the panel on a somewhat different course when he said, “We haven’t detained status offenders in Shelby County in 15 years. You just don’t do it. Pass the law you don’t deter status offenders and you won’t have a problem with counsel.”

The task force approved Michael’s proposal.

Teen sexting

The task force voted to support legislation the District Attorney’s Conference is proposing to lessen punishment for minors caught sending or receiving pictures of nude children on their cell phones and other electronic devices.

Under a bill sought by the Williamson County district attorney’s office, a child found sexting would no longer face the equivalent of a Class B felony and placement on a juvenile sex offender registry, but would be given the equivalent of a misdemeanor and receive probation, according to Mike Dunavant, district attorney for the 25th District.

In many cases, young people are taking nude or partially nude pictures of their friends and sending them out on social media, he said. Usually, a teacher, school resource officer or parent finds out.

“It’s becoming more frequent with the use and proliferation of cell phones,” Dunavant said.

The legislation being proposed would allow judges to determine whether the child intended or knowingly sent the image or whether it was a reckless offense, he said, and the terms for probation would be based on that.

Money for data

Regaining funds for data collection, either from Congress or the Legislature, is important because Tennessee’s information on juvenile offenders from county to county is too difficult to track from county to county, Norris said. Congress maintained some $10 million in funds for the state’s juvenile justice efforts, but eliminated the money for data.

The senator pointed out Tennessee has the second-lowest number of incarcerated juveniles in the nation.

“That doesn’t mean we always know where those individuals have gone,” Norris said. “I would hope that means they’re on the road to salvation.”

The task force previously approved tentative recommendations Dec. 1 to tackle juvenile justice from several angles.

• Obtain the services of the PEW Charitable Trusts or similar organizations to put together data and make recommendations on the structure of Tennessee’s juvenile justice and children’s services. The study is to explore data for all juvenile justice in several departments to help determine whether a separate juvenile justice department should be created. It also would delve into the effectiveness of probation services in directing youths away from further contact with juvenile justice and adult corrections. In addition, it would look at how well the state’s three youth development centers improve public safety by treating and rehabilitating young people.

• Eliminate the use of valid court orders for status offenses through legislation, an effort to stop the detention of children who commit status offenses such as running away from home or failing to attend school. Federal law permits such court orders, but several states have stopped using this type of punishment based, in part, on research showing low-risk, non-violent offenders are more likely to commit delinquent offenses and go back to detention if they’re detained for these status offenses. Tennessee is one of 16 states whose juvenile courts use valid court orders, and about six of 95 counties issue 80 percent of the orders. About 4,450 were issued in 2014, statistics show.

• Create a pilot program for collecting standardized, verifiable data, starting with the state’s four larges counties, including Shelby, to determine how diversion, detention and probation, as well as community and state detention programs affect public safety, recidivism and long-term youth outcomes. Officials say one of the biggest problems is the lack of common systems to keep track of juveniles.

• Set up a data working group to review all aspects of information on juvenile justice and come up with options for a better system, including costs and related legislation.

• Pass legislation requiring a review of probation services to make sure youths are screened correctly so probation orders are tailored to meet their needs and risks. In fiscal 2016, 4,026 youths were on state probation at a cost of $23.19 each day with an average of 195 days costing a total of $4,522. Shelby County and the other three urban counties use their own probation systems for youths with more serious offenses.

• Encourage juvenile courts and school systems to set up partnerships and reduce the number of referrals to juvenile court by schools. Consider legislation to revise Tennessee’s truancy laws, resuming support for a bill that failed to gain traction when proposed in 2015. Back the addition of school nurses and guidance counselors to help schools handle students’ needs on campus rather than sending them to juvenile court.

Truancy is the most frequent reason given for schools referring juveniles to court, 7,997 out of nearly 9,500 cases.

Tennessee schools expelled the highest number of black students among 13 Southeast states, according to a 2015 study by the University of Pennsylvania. The state has one of the nation’s highest percentages of disconnected – those 16 to 24 who are unemployed and out of school – and Memphis has the highest rate in Tennessee with 21.6 percent disconnected youth.

The state Department of Education is trying to shift forms of punishment in local schools, such as the overuse of suspension and expulsion, according to the report, and set up alternatives.

In Shelby County Schools, for instance, the School House Adjustment Program Enterprise (SHAPE) cut transfers to juvenile court by more than 70 percent. Funded by the SCS Office of Students Services, it reduces the number of students sent to juvenile court for minor infractions, in part, by focusing on immediate consequences such as restitution or community service and a quicker resolution for the victim.

Sam Stockard can be reached at sstockard44@gmail.com.

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