Tennessee’s ‘Gutted’ Juvenile Justice Reform Enacted This Week

With the promise of the new year came the promise of a Juvenile Justice Reform Act for Tennessee introduced in January 2018. It was developed after more than two years of work by two different task forces aided by the nationally respected Pew Center for Research.

The bill that was introduced by Governor Haslam in his January State of the State Address set out to drastically reduce the number of children detained, lower costs to the state and allow for reinvestment into programs that could further prevent children from involvement in the juvenile justice system. The reduction in detentions was expected to reach 36% by 2024 at a savings of $36 million dollars.

But what passed as law just four months later and went into effect July 1, 2018… is dramatically different.

Due to pressure from juvenile court judges and district attorney generals from across the state, the bill was practically rewritten in one amendment. Instead of reducing the detention of children by double digits each year, the amended bill now will decrease detentions by just 2% each year, resulting little savings to the state. In fact, the amendment will instead cost the state hundreds of thousands of dollars every year by failing to meaningfully reduce the number of children in state custody. Additionally concerning is that the refusal to reduce detention and, therefore reduce costs, eliminates the logical reinvestment in alternatives to detention (See the fiscal note due to pages, starting on page 3 of the amended bills fiscal note.)

One positive aspect of the original bill that was not changed in the numerous amendments is an annual $4 million investment in mental health programs for youth, but this has been reserved for the state’s numerous rural areas.

This combination of far fewer kids detained and more children and their families — in rural and urban communities — getting the help they need is the promise the original bill brought to our state. That is the promise the enacted law fails to deliver.

Photo by Richard Ross at Richardross.net

“Tennessee missed an incredible opportunity to move forward.” – Linda O’Neal, executive director of the Tennessee Commission on Children and Youth via The Tennessean


Read these articles about what happened to juvenile justice reform in Tennessee: 

Why Some Experts Say An Attempt To Reform Juvenile Justice In Tennessee Came Up Short via Nashville Public Radio

Advocates once praised Bill Haslam’s juvenile justice bill. Now they say it’s watered down via The Tennessean

Opinion | New bill derails juvenile justice reform via The Commercial Appeal

Juvenile Justice: The Disservice of Summers Letter And Legislative Failure via Smart City Memphis





Justice Advocates Warn Community About Proposed Shelby County Juvenile Assessment Center

We originally published this post in October of 2017 when the concept of the Juvenile Assessment Center for Memphis was rolled out. The Commercial Appeal ran a series of pieces — both for and against – JACs. We are re-publishing this piece as the legislation that authorizes a pilot JAC in Shelby County (HB2428/SB2624 ) is currently being debated by the Tennessee General Assembly.


“There has been no evidence that JACs have a positive impact on DMC (Disproportionate Minority Contact)  and, in fact, there is concern they could make it worse. If net widening does occur, it will sweep in more youth from the inner-city than the suburbs.”

– Bill Powell, settlement agreement coordinator for the U.S. Justice Department’s Memorandum of Agreement with Shelby County Juvenile Court from 2012 until he resigned in June. Powell served three mayors as the county’s criminal justice coordinator.


The Commercial Appeal looked at what Memphis justice advocates had to say about the proposal to create what are commonly called Juvenile Assessment Centers (JAC) in Shelby County. The previous week, the Commercial Appeal published pieces from those in support of JACs. The idea is to intervene with resources in the lives of young people who get into trouble, so that they do not get entangled in the criminal justice system. If developed, the facility will be called a Youth Assessment and Resource Center or (YARC).

But a major concern is that this center could result in “net widening” and actually bring more young people of color into an already broken system.

Click this story link to read Shelby County Commissioner Van Turner’s perspective. Commissioner Turner says anyone serious about addressing poverty and crime in Memphis should be paying close attention to what happens in Juvenile Court and with the proposed JACs

Bill Powell, the original settlement coordinator for the DOJ’s agreement with Shelby County also brought in his experience. Powell resigned this summer after learning the County and Juvenile Court had sent a letter to the DOJ requesting the agreement be terminated. Read his piece here.

Cardell Orrin, director of Stand for Children Memphis believes Shelby County’s proposed JAC should be less law enforcement centered and more youth-centered: Click this link to read his perspective.

Rev. Cheryl Beard, a leader of Memphis Interfaith Coalition for Action and Hope is concerned that our community is approaching reform of the juvenile justice system as a “checklist” – her thoughts are outlined here.

Prof. Demetria Frank with the University of Memphis Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law founded Project M.I., an advocacy group focused on mass incarceration and juvenile justice. Prof. Frank sounds the alarm that because Shelby County Juvenile Court has still not made progress in the equal protection of black children, it is destined to repeat the same culture in the JACs. Read her article here.

Read all the stories from those who are both concerned and supportive of building a JAC in Memphis here.

You can also learn more about the DOJs decision to terminate portions of the Juvenile Court agreement here.

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Shelby County Public Defender on Dismantling the School-to-Prison Pipeline in Tennessee

“Each morning, I slow down as I drive past the concrete blocks in downtown Memphis that once held up the Confederacy.

It has become a daily source of inspiration to reflect on the unrelenting courage, commitment and creativity that leaders in my community displayed to bring down monuments to oppression and inhumanity. Years of meetings, protests, threats, paperwork and political maneuvering culminated in the erasure of these public symbols of white supremacy.

As the Chief Public Defender for Shelby County, this gives me hope. It demonstrates that this community can make difficult change when there is a sustained will to confront injustice.

Razing racial disparities in our juvenile justice system will require the level of courage, commitment and creativity it took to bring down those statues — times 10. That sounds daunting, but Memphis is not alone in this fight. What is wrong here is wrong in communities across our state” — Shelby County Public Defender Stephen Bush, Commercial Appeal “Viewpoint”

This Tuesday, the Tennessee General Assembly convenes the 2018 legislative session. Over the next few months, we could see laws proposed that dramatically alter the way all children in Tennessee are treated, particularly youth  of color who come into contact with the juvenile justice system.  Shelby County Public Defender Stephen Bush was invited to contribute his perspective about a report recently issued by the Blue Ribbon Task Force on Juvenile Justice. The recommendations in this report could be used to create a more fair juvenile justice system and curb the number of school children referred to law enforcement.

You can read his entire column in the Commercial Appeal here.