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Broken: TN juvenile justice system 'broken, outdated, in catastrophic failure'

Posted: 6:10 AM, Nov 04, 2019
Updated: 2019-11-26 22:22:18-05
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NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — Tennessee's juvenile justice system repeatedly puts violent teen offenders back out on the streets through a sometimes deadly revolving door, a six-month NewsChannel 5 investigation has discovered.

It's a system that person after person described as "broken."

"Broken's too nice of a word for it," suggested Nashville attorney Jim Todd, a former juvenile prosecutor.

"It's outdated, it's broken, it's in catastrophic failure."

A series of homicides in the last three years has dramatically illustrated the serious juvenile crime issues facing the city of Nashville and surrounding areas.

In 2017, 16-year-old Deberianah Begley was shot and killed outside her family's home in the James C. Cayce housing projects. Among those arrested were a 17-year-old boy and a 16-year-old boy.

That same year, 74-year-old Asian tourist Ruxin Wang was fatally shot as he took out the trash at his son's South Nashville home. A 16-year-old girl was charged with murder.

Earlier this year, 24-year-old singer Kyle Yorlets was killed during an apparent carjacking. Officers charged three girls and two boys, ages 12 to 16.

Police were frustrated.

"We've got to do better. Families have to do better. The systems have to do better," said Metro police spokesman Don Aaron after the Yorlets murder.

"It is unfathomable."

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Davidson County Juvenile Court Judge Sheila Calloway agreed.

"Juvenile crime overall is going down," Calloway told NewsChannel 5 Investigates, noting a drop in some crimes involving kids, like burglaries and aggravated assaults.

"Now the trend that keeps me up at night or that I get concerned about is that our serious crimes, the children that are committing or alleged to have committed murders or aggravated robberies, gun possessions, those crimes aren't necessarily going down."

Last year, juvenile court numbers show robbery charges were near a five-year high.

And the numbers tracking auto theft involving juveniles shot up, along with the number of charges for kids in possession of handguns.

NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked Metro police Lt. Blaine Whited, who heads the department's juvenile crime task force, about those trends.

"You're seeing more kids stealing cars and more kids in possession of handguns. That's a deadly combination, isn't it?" we asked.

"Yes," Whited responded, "that's exactly what I call a recipe for disaster."

Whited calls auto theft a "gateway crime."

"They'll start with auto theft and then it just seems to escalate," he said.

"It almost will immediately go to a violent crime, such as robbery, carjacking, aggravated assaults or -- worst case scenario -- a homicide."

And Nashville's juvenile crime problem is becoming Middle Tennessee's problem, with police regularly reporting pursuits and other crimes involving the city's youth.

Video obtained by NewsChannel 5 Investigates shows how a chase by Hendersonville police ends with five teens bailing from a stolen car.

Police say, by and large, it's repeat offenders who are driving the crime wave.

"Why is it still being a problem? Why are we still experiencing the same youth committing violent offenses and car thefts over and over and over again?" Lt. Whited asked.

NewsChannel 5 Investigates wanted to know, "Are they not afraid of juvenile court?"

"From our experiences, they do not a lot of times even think there was any consequences because they are released so fast," Whited said.

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"They don't correlate that there was any consequence for them being arrested for the stolen car or the gun."

By law, most juvenile criminal histories are confidential.

But NewsChannel 5 Investigates obtained juvenile crime data going back almost eight years.

While it did not contain names, by cross checking specific charges with the dates of known crimes, we developed unprecedented insight into the path that sometimes leads to murder.

Out of some 35 kids charged with homicide since 2016, we discovered almost two thirds had confirmed juvenile records that should have set off alarms.

NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked Judge Calloway, "When a child commits a murder - and that child has been in and out of the system -- do you say we failed that child?"

"Oh, when a child has committed murder or has been alleged to commit murder -- and they have been in and out of the system -- I definitely believe that we as a system and as a community have failed that child," Calloway answered.

Among them: two of Deberianah Begley's accused killers.

We showed Deberianah's mother what we uncovered.

"Sitting here as a mother looking at these juvenile records, they should have been locked up," Shatika Begley said.

One of them, 16-year-old Jamarius Hill, was first arrested for theft of merchandise at age 12, according to the juvenile court data.

By 14, it was handgun possession and evading arrest.

At 15, he pulled off a carjacking, charged with aggravated robbery, auto theft and handgun possession.

He was put on intensive probation.

Within six months, he was arrested twice more.

"The same way these kids getting out here doing these crimes like an adult doing crimes, they need to be charged as adults doing these crimes," Begley said.

Six months after that last arrest, Deberianah was killed.

"We can't be lenient on them cause they are going to keep going out here doing them," Begley said.

"Who wants to keep losing innocent families to juveniles? Who wants to keep getting up every morning and their car's gone, their house shot up? Juveniles, juveniles, juveniles. No, y'all got to be more harder on these juveniles -- and maybe the streets would be a little better."

But Judge Calloway said "locking them up is not always the best answer."

Calloway said she's trying to provide interventions that give kids a chance to become productive members of society -- and not inmates that taxpayers will have to pay to keep behind bars for the rest of their lives.

"Those who get locked up usually are the ones least likely to graduate," the judge said. "The ones that get locked up are the ones that are more likely to end up in the adult system."

NewsChannel 5 Investigates noted, "But some people will say locking them up protects the public."

"What we have to do in order to protect the public," she answered, "is to put more services and resources into every child."

The murder of Ruxin Wang came just eight months after the alleged shooter, 16-year-old Myeisha Brown, was arrested for auto theft and other charges, according to the crime data.

Just two months before the shooting, Brown had been arrested for handgun possession and released on intensive gang probation.

When Kyle Yorlets was killed during an apparent carjacking, all five of the suspects were known to police.

Our investigation discovered one of them -- a 13-year-old boy whose name has not been released -- had been arrested for auto theft less than three weeks before.

"Juvenile law prohibits local detention facilities, local judges from detaining juveniles in many of the situations where they need detention the most," said the former juvenile prosecutor Jim Todd.

In many cases, the judge's hands are tied, Todd said, because detention is not a tool that can be used for non-violent offenses.

"The first time a 12 year old steals a car and is arrested with some crack cocaine, they are going to get sent home that night. The mother that wasn't watching them at 2 a.m. is going to get called and say come get your kid because, by law in Tennessee, they can't be detained."

He pointed to the 1997 case of Terrence McLaurine, who was accused of murder at the age of 12.

"The mandate that they must go home and can't be detained is teaching the kid the wrong message," Todd added.

"Terrence McLauren said, after being arrested for murder, I couldn't believe they didn't let me go home. You are not burning your hand on the stove, you are not learning that the stove is hot at a very, very early age."

NewsChannel 5 Investigates noted, "Doing the same thing."

"Over and over and over again," Todd finished the sentence.

"And expecting a different result?"

Todd quietly nodded.

"I would love," Judge Calloway said, "to be able to, prior to releasing that child to that parent, is to do an assessment of what that child needs, what that parent needs and to figure out what can we put in the home prior to us releasing them back to that home without anything."

"We don't have the ability to do that now."

One option that judges do have is to commit juvenile offenders to the custody of the state Department of Children's Services.

NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked Calloway, "When you send a child to DCS, it's because you feel like that child needs to be treated in a secure facility?"

"That is correct," the judge responded.

"For that child's protection?"

"And the community's safety, as well."

We wanted to know, "And what guarantee do you have that that child will actually be locked up?"

"I have no guarantee that child will actually be locked up," Calloway said.

After DCS experienced unrest at its prison-like youth development centers five years ago, it moved to a different model.

The agency now has less than 150 high-security beds statewide.

They rely on less secure facilities operated by private companies to treat and rehabilitate some of the state's most troubled kids.

We asked Calloway, "So, if as the judge you say this child needs to be taken off the streets of Nashville, it's possible that DCS could send that child back two days from now?"

"I don't know if it happens within two days," the judge said, "but I have some cases where I may question a community placement that they have chosen for a child."

Back in March, an Uber driver was shot during an attempted carjacking at the Exxon on Shelby St.

The alleged shooter, 16-year-old David Earl Mays, was first arrested for burglary at age 10. At 12, handgun possession and theft of merchandise. Again at 13, for handgun possession and assault.

At 14, he was placed in DCS custody.

At 15, he was again arrested for aggravated robbery, auto theft, and handgun possession.

He was sent back to DCS.

At the time of the shooting, the agency had let Mays out on a weekend pass.

"You know, I go back to a lot of these juveniles I talked to when I was a prosecutor," Jim Todd said.

"And they just all say the same thing: had I known. Had I known, I would never have kept doing what I was doing. And they say that when they were in [Tennessee Department of Correction] custody, serving 30 years."

NewsChannel 5 Investigates followed up, "Had I known what?"

"Consequences," Todd said simply.