Reforms Proposed for 'Smart' State Juvenile Justice System


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Mark Norris
  • Mark Norris
A raft of reforms to the state’s juvenile justice system could shrink the number of offending youths placed out of their homes and save the state $36 million over five years, according to a report issued Thursday.

The Ad-hoc Tennessee Blue Ribbon Task Force on Juvenile Justice started meeting in June. The group was tasked with undertaking a “data-driven, research-based effort to develop policies to improve outcomes in the juvenile justice system.”

The group was co-chaired by Speaker of The House Beth Harrell and Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris. It included other state lawmakers, judges, state commissioners, prosecutors, public defenders, and more.

The task force held numerous meetings and wrapped up its discussions last month. On Thursday, it issued a 25-page report with a number of recommendations. The group also asked the state to invest $4.5 million in the next fiscal year to implement the plan’s reforms.

In a phone conference last month, Norris said that some of the findings seemed “counter-intuitive”

“We want to be tough on crime but, really, what we need to be is smart about public safety,” Norris said. “In order to do a better job in public safety, we need to look at public data, as to whether or not the youths in this system, are properly handled.
“We’re not talking about being soft on crime, we need to be smart and effective in what we do.”

Some of the main findings of the task force, include that nearly half (44 percent) of youths in out-of-home placement (like foster care) are there on misdemeanors, unruly offenses, and technical violations. While the number of youths in out-of-home placement has shrunk over the last five years, those in the system are staying 10 percent longer.

To solve some of the problems, the task force suggested preventing deeper involvement in the juvenile justice system. For example, it would allow school to respond to student behavior without implicating the courts. It would improve communication between schools, parents, and students to address truancy wihtout court involvement where possible.
To protect public safety, the task force suggested using detention only for youths who pose a risk to the community. The task force suggested removing a number of technical violations — like failure to appear in court, or the violation of a court order — as reasons that youths should be detained. Also, the group suggested that no youth under 12 should be detained except in special circumstances.

The state would use research to set the lengths youths would be supervised and held in state custody. An assessment tool would be used statewide to help inform supervision levels, referrals to programs and services, and in case planning.

Finally, all of the group’s recommendations would be be sustained with oversight and further investment.

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