NASHVILLE – On Wednesday, the General Assembly’s Joint Ad Hoc Committee on Juvenile Justice met to announce its legislative recommendations to improve the Wilder Youth Development Center in Somerville as well as the broader juvenile justice system in Tennessee. In June 2022, Lt. Governor Randy McNally and House Speaker Cameron Sexton tasked the committee with examining all aspects of juvenile detention and probation in the state of Tennessee.
“These are issues we really dug into. We looked, we listened, and we traveled to come up with our best recommendations,” said Senate Co-Chair, Page Walley (R-Savannah). “We know there is no final solution that will solve all the challenges at DCS, but our proposals are a significant step in the right direction. I appreciate Lt. Governor McNally and Speaker Sexton for appointing this committee and look forward to working with my colleagues in the General Assembly, Governor Lee and DCS as they consider these recommendations. I am confident we will make remarkable investments and improvements in DCS and the lives of children.”
The recommendations will be implemented through both the budgetary and legislative processes during the 2023 session of the General Assembly.
“Providing alternative avenues that address behavioral issues but allows children to avoid the criminal justice system is in the best interest of everyone,” said House Co-Chair Mary Littleton, (R-Dickson). “I’m proud of this committee’s hard work. I believe we’ve drafted meaningful solutions to some very serious problems that will ultimately improve outcomes and transform lives.”
Throughout 2022, the committee met seven times and conducted an exhaustive study on juvenile justice issues. The committee’s recommendations are based on months of fact finding with hearings from various state agencies, non-profits, local law enforcement, district attorneys, juvenile judges and health care professionals.
Share juvenile records among judges – One recommendation is to allow confidential juvenile records to be shared among juvenile court judges across the state, to provide a full picture of a juvenile’s record. Currently, juvenile records such as programs and services received, adjudications, and what has been successful and unsuccessful do not follow juveniles to different jurisdictions across the state. In addition, each court has its own system which makes it very difficult to combine data. This legislation is a first step towards addressing a large data sharing issue.
Expand bed capacity – The state needs approximately 180 – 190 additional male beds and 25 additional female beds at DCS facilities. The consulting group Ernst and Young (EY) has conducted an audit of DCS facilities and will soon release their report with recommendations on the best way to increase the number of beds.
Disincentivize escapes at youth development centers – One of the recommendations is to increase penalties for juveniles in youth development centers who try to escape. The proposed legislation would allow juvenile escapees to be charged as an adult and moved to a Tennessee Department of Corrections facility. Under the bill, the juvenile would only be charged as an adult for the crime of escaping.
Expand incorrigible designation – Legislation is being proposed to lower the age eligible for an incorrigible designation from 18 to 17 years old. This would allow superintendents at Wilder and other youth development centers to transfer extremely uncooperative and violent 17-year-olds to Department of Corrections facilities.
Separate violent juveniles based on age – Another measure requires children in DCS custody who are 16 years of age or older and retained in a Level III or Level IV juvenile detention facility to be separated from children under 16 years of age.
Improve employee training and compensation – Part of the committee’s recommendations include legislation to expand employee training for youth services officers on best practices for behavior management and conflict resolution when supervising juveniles with severe behavioral issues. Additionally, to help attract and retain personnel the committee is working with DCS to support salary improvements for DCS officers in the 2023/2024 state budget.
Create a Juvenile Justice Review Commission – To continually improve practices, the committee is proposing legislation to create a Juvenile Justice Review Commission under DCS and the Tennessee Commission on Children and Youth (TCCY). The commission would regularly review juvenile justice cases and provide an annual report with recommendations to the General Assembly. It would be modeled after the Second Look Commission which reviews severe child abuse cases.
Expand DCS prevention grants – With the number of juveniles in DCS custody steadily increasing, it is becoming more important than ever to focus resources on preventing children from entering state custody. The committee is proposing legislation to improve prevention services by expanding DCS prevention grants that provide after school care, curfew checks, school attendance checks and mental health care. Tennessee currently has two prevention programs with over a 90% success rate. The programs serve 55 youth per year in East and West Tennessee.
Establish a juvenile step-down pilot program – In order to incentivize good behavior among juveniles, legislation is being proposed to establish a pilot program with DCS on compliance programming. It would provide ways for juveniles to step down from secure facilities into a homelike setting with more freedom.
Require 24/7 mental health services – The committee is recommending legislation to provide a stronger clinical presence at youth development centers by requiring 24/7 clinical mental health treatment services.
Make available chaplain services – Part of the legislative package also includes legislation to offer chaplain services at all DCS youth development facilities.
The proposed legislation will be sponsored by members of the committee: Sen. Page Walley (R-Savannah), Sen. Ed Jackson (R-Jackson), Sen. Raumesh Akbari (D-Memphis), Rep. Mary Littleton (R-Dickson), Rep. Lowell Russell (R-Vonore), Rep. Ron Gant (R-Piperton), Rep. Andrew Farmer (R-Sevierville) and Rep. Johnny Shaw (D-Bolivar).