When A.G. was 15, she was accused of truancy in Knoxville, Tennessee. A.G. was facing bullying as well as crippling anxiety attacks, which caused her to miss school. When her mother brought her into court for truancy, she was terrified. She did not have an attorney and pleaded guilty.
Before she knew it, she was being shackled, stripped, placed in a uniform, and forced to spend the night in jail. She cried the entire night. The next morning, she was supposed to attend school, but because her mental health had deteriorated so much, she ended up in a psychiatric facility for a week because she had become suicidal.
Like thousands of children every year, A.G. was in court to answer for a non-criminal infraction that only a minor can commit – infractions called “status offenses” that are technically not crimes. Those committing such offenses – being caught with cigarettes, skipping school, running away, violating curfew, and alcohol possession – are called “unruly children” under Tennessee law and may be taken into custody.
A.G.’s case, unfortunately, is not a unique one.
In recent years, Tennessee has come under fire for locking up children for low-level, often non-criminal, conduct. In his final State of the State Address, Gov. Bill Haslam introduced the bill, which has the potential to reform Tennessee’s juvenile justice system. The legislation, which is currently in committees in both the House and Senate, follows recommendations issued by a task force convened last year to examine how to make Tennessee’s juvenile justice system more effective.
The reforms proposed are smart, cost-effective and, most importantly of all, will benefit the youth of Tennessee. Many children in Tennessee still end up in court to answer for non-criminal infractions, like status offenses. The task force concluded that youth adjudicated on minor offenses make up nearly half of youth in costly out-of-home placements.
Research shows that detention is bad for public safety: detaining children for status offenses actually increases the chance that they will become more involved with the criminal justice system over time. Detaining youth is also costly for communities and taxpayers. The task force also found that, compared to five years ago, children are staying longer and enduring more out-of-home placements during their time in custody.
Using community-based alternatives that allow youth to stay close to home would lead to better outcomes for youth while keeping them accountable. Although moving to community-based alternatives will require an initial investment, the eventual savings to taxpayers will be immense.
While some areas of Tennessee already have limited access to community-based resources, others do not. In Hamilton County, more than half of all delinquency petitions end with youth in detention; in Davidson County, by contrast, only 10 percent of delinquent youth end up in secure detention. The juvenile justice package proposed by Gov. Haslam expands community-based services to all counties and improves information-sharing and data collection across the state, so that counties can become more uniform in what they can offer to children.
This year, Tennessee has a chance to address the pervasive inequities across county lines – what House Speaker Beth Harwell calls the “justice by geography” problem – as well as other issues that continue to plague Tennessee’s juvenile justice system.
States across the country are reforming their juvenile justice systems, reducing expensive out-of-home placements, closing youth prisons and reinvesting in their children. Tennessee has the opportunity this legislative session to do the same.