A Tennessee legislative committee on Wednesday recommended the state increase mental health services and some punitive measures at the state's Department of Children Services-run juvenile detention centers - in addition to calling for a unified courts system to help judges better share juvenile case information across jurisdictions.
Advocates have warned the juvenile justice system is rife with issues, especially as DCS struggles to correct course in the face of systemic understaffing and case management problems. In 2022, a scathing report on the Wilder Youth Development Center in West Tennessee found widespread abuses and violations of state and federal law.
DCS woes:Tennessee DCS staff, kids 'traumatized' by ongoing placement issues, new commissioner says
Committee co-chair Rep. Mary Littleton, R-Dickson, said Wednesday there are no full-time mental health professionals at the state's youth development centers, which are currently at their maximum capacity. The state needs to add at least 200 new beds, Littleton said, with the committee recommending a new facility be built at the current Wilder site.
The committee's recommendations include:
Sharing juvenile records among judges in different jurisdictions, as Tennessee courts do not have a consolidated case system
Funding additional prevention grants in Middle Tennessee, which would include after-school care, mental health treatment and other programs to divert youth away from the juvenile justice system
Treating escapes from youth development centers as adult crimes for juveniles 16 and older
Lowering the age a teenager could be designated as "incorrigible" from 18 to 17, a designation that allows DCS to petition a juvenile be transferred to the adult Department of Corrections
Providing 24/7 mental health services at DCS youth development centers
Establishing a "step-down" housing pilot that would allow teens in higher security youth facilities to move down to a more "home-like" setting when deemed appropriate
Increasing DCS salaries, which DCS has already requested through Gov. Bill Lee's the upcoming budget
Sen. Page Walley, R-Bolivar, said Wednesday the ad hoc committee sought to recommend changes that were "redemptive and restorative" while also prioritizing "accountability."
"I think you're going to see some fairly remarkable investments of resources into this agency that very much needs it," said Walley, a former DCS commissioner. "The work we do here with children and families, with this agency in particular, is the toughest job in state government."
Lawmakers expected to debate criminal justice, sentencing bills
Criminal justice and sentencing legislation are expected to play a major role in the 113th Tennessee General Assembly this year, particularly as some high-level Republicans say they want stricter sentencing guidelines for young adults convicted of serious crimes.
House Speaker Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville, confirmed this week legislation is being considered that would require prosecutors to charge juveniles as adults in certain cases. State law currently states teenagers over the age of 14 may be charged as adults in some violent crimes, but Sexton said Tuesday legislation would change it to a requirement.
Sexton and Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, R-Oak Ridge, convened another ad hoc committee last summer to probe criminal sentencing and supervision issues in Tennessee in the wake of two high-profile violent crimes in Memphis.
Sentencing panel:Lawmakers create committee to review prison sentences, as Lee calls for state to be 'smart on crime'
Meanwhile, Rep. Mark White, R-Memphis, filed a bill proposing "blended" sentences for teenagers convicted of certain crimes, potentially splitting the distance between some traditional "tough-on-crime" stances and criminal justice reform advocates.
Rather than automatically accelerate a teenager to adult criminal court, HB 430 would allow a teenager to remain under juvenile court jurisdiction but also be subject to serving adult probation from ages 18 to 25, subject to court review.
Reach Melissa Brown at email@example.com.
This article originally appeared on Nashville Tennessean: Tennessee lawmakers make juvenile justice reform recommendations