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Juvenile Justice reform passes House, Senate

Becky Campbell • Apr 29, 2018 at 10:52 PM

Juvenile justice reform is on its way to Tennessee, although there are still disagreements about whether the bill improves the system or sets it back.

The legislation, after several revisions and amendments, passed both the House and Senate recently after making its way through various subcommittees and committees in Nashville with a 98-1 vote in the House and 27-0 vote in the Senate. Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris took the lead on sponsorship in the Senate while Rep. Jason Zachary, R-Knoxville, took the lead as co-sponsor in the House.

The plan was to bring sweeping change to juvenile justice laws in some areas of the state, but it’s unlikely to make a huge difference in how local courts administer justice for juveniles, according to one local judge.

Many legislators said the final bill was a “watered-down” version of the original proposal, which would have prevented judges from sending juveniles to court over minor infractions such as skipping school or drinking alcohol.

But judges balked at the first proposal because it basically took away judicial discretion and handled juvenile justice in a cookie-cutter approach. Johnson City Juvenile Court Judge Sharon Green said recently the amendments to lessen those restrictions garnered more support from judges.

“It works toward making juvenile justice more consistent across the state to avoid what’s being called ‘juvenile justice by geography,’” Green said. “Larger areas have more resources .... more rural areas do not have that,” she said, and the bill “focuses on the length of probation and length of commitment to DCS custody and making that more consistent across the state while preserving judicial discretion in each individual case.”

According to a document provided by Gov. Bill Haslam’s office, the legislation will “provide $4.5 million through the Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services to expand community-based services and treatment options for juveniles to increase access to alternatives to custody in all areas of the state in addition to reforms on how justice is administered in juvenile court.”

Haslam will also establish an implementation review group via executive order to monitor how the reforms are carried out, including developing metrics, and consider recommendations for necessary revisions and additional reform measures.

It took a the Blue Ribbon Tennessee Task Force on Juvenile Justice — comprised of legislators, the Department of Children's Services, prosecutors, defense attorneys and juvenile judges across the state — nearly three years to hammer out the bill.

Task Force Goals:

• Protect public safety and contain costs by focusing system resources on the highest-risk youth;

• Prevent deeper juvenile justice system involvement of lower-level youth through early response; and

• Sustain effective practices through continued oversight and reinvestment in a stronger continuum of evidence-based services statewide.

It addresses many things that are already in place in parts of the upper region of Tennessee, particularly Johnson City.

The legislation came about after the task force findings recognized a discrepancy in other parts of the state that don’t have the financial ability to provide much-needed resources for treating juveniles. The so-called “justice by geography,” meant juveniles in areas with fewer resources didn’t have the same less-restrictive rehabilitative opportunities as those in other areas.

Task Force Findings

• Youth charged with lower-level offenses like misdemeanors and unruly offenses (which wouldn’t be crimes if committed by an adult) make up the majority of the juvenile justice population. Nearly half of youth placed in out-of-home facilities are committed for non-felonies.

• Youth who are put under state supervision are staying longer and have more out-of-home placements during their time in custody than they were five years ago.

• Community-based interventions that effectively hold youth accountable, reduce recidivism, and keep families intact are not available across the state — especially in rural jurisdictions. A lack of statewide guidance for the courts leads to inconsistent outcomes for youth.

• Data collection and information sharing is insufficient and inconsistent across the state, leading to a lack of accountability and inability to measure the effectiveness of the juvenile justice system.

“The requirement of making our individual rules of probation from a (new) needs and risk assessment is going to be helpful,” Green said. “That’s a new tool. it will be a major change to the extent that from that (assessment) we will make individualized case plans rather than use standardized rules of probation.”

As far as putting juveniles in detention, Green said resources in the Johnson City area help keep kids out of lock-up for minor infractions that might put a juvenile in custody in another part of the state.

The original bill was met with some opposition from judges across the state because they said it applied too many restrictions on their judicial discretion in cases. A number of amendments were filed as the bill was negotiated.

What It Does

• Retains judicial discretion while focusing eligibility for commitment to DCS on youth who have committed a felony, are a repeat offender, or are in imminent risk of danger and need DCS services;

• Sets presumptive maximum length of stay in DCS custody of 6 months, unless a child needs time to complete treatment or commits a new offense. Sets maximum term of probation of 6 months, with extensions permitted for treatment completion. Research shows that shorter, intensive custody more effectively reduces reoffending;

• Limits the use of secure detention to youth who pose a public safety risk or who have violated court orders;

•Limits transfer from juvenile court to criminal court to cases of serious felony offenses;

• Requires supervision conditions and case plans be tied to a validated risk and needs assessment, so that each child receives oversight and services tailored to that child’s case and circumstances;

• Gives courts discretion to utilize a system of swift and proportionate responses for probation violations;

• Permits imposing financial obligations against parents, but limits the imposition of financial obligations, other than restitution, on children in order to prioritize victim compensation;

• Expands early response options for law enforcement and intervention by schools when appropriate to help prevent unnecessary juvenile justice system involvement for youth;

• Requires AOC/courts, DCS, and TCCY to submit a report about improving statewide data collection; and

• Builds on performance-based contracting between DCS and private providers.

Another new part of the juvenile code will allow children under the age of 14 accused of first-degree murder, second-degree murder and the attempt of either of those, to be transferred to adult court. Current law only allows children 14 and up to be tried as an adult. The state is still prohibited from seeking the death penalty in any case involving a juvenile transferred to adult court.

The legislation also allows a 17-year-old to be tried as an adult on any criminal charge if the juvenile court determines such prosecution is necessary to address the child’s needs when juvenile jurisdiction would expire in the near future.

With the bill passing both the House and Senate, it will go to Haslam for his signature making the law valid. No date was set for that signing.

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