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Broken: Juvenile crime called 'public health crisis'

Posted: 9:46 PM, Nov 05, 2019
Updated: 2019-11-26 22:23:00-05
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NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — Almost every day, we hear about carjackings, armed robberies and police pursuits involving Nashville teens.

Now some are asking whether it's time to call it a "public health crisis."

But a six-month NewsChannel 5 investigation of our broken juvenile justice system discovered that fixing the problem will require more than just police arresting people.

It will also require difficult conversations about race - and about racism.

"Now is the time that you are going to see us have to call it out for what it is if we want to see change," said Ashford Hughes Sr., who worked on equity issues for former mayors Megan Barry and David Briley.

"This is absolutely a public health crisis."

Step through the high-security doors of Nashville's juvenile detention center, and Tennessee's broken juvenile justice system quickly becomes an issue of black and white.

"When I think about the makeup of the children in our detention facility, the majority are African American -- and we only hold those youth in our detention facility who we at some point think are a risk to the safety of the community prior to their trial date," said Juvenile Court Judge Sheila Calloway.


The children inside Nashville's juvenile detention

Out on the streets, police see a similar pattern.

When those kids make the news, people often see a young criminal.

What they may fail to see is the child:

A girl whose incredible shyness seems completely incompatible with the robbery-turned-murder for which she now faces charges.

Another girl, also accused of murder, who eagerly volunteers "I can make a heart with my hands."

A boy, accused of shooting a man during an attempted carjacking, asked how his life might have been different, responding simply: "Having a father figure who loved me."

Juvenile Court administrator Kathy Sinback said the role of race in Nashville's juvenile crime problem is deeply disturbing.

"I remember recently going to a Martin Luther King Day presentation back in detention with the youth where they were giving speeches about civil rights and things that they had learned in class about Martin Luther King -- and just thinking how ironic it was, looking around and just thinking how far we still have to go," Sinback said.

Ashford Hughes said Nashville will continue to lose children of color if the community doesn't take a honest look at the path that leads to juvenile detention.

"You can't just say 'this community is bad, they just need to be better parents, this community is bad, they aren't doing enough,'" Hughes added.

"We have to move beyond blaming the victim and look at the systems."

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Ashford Hughes, former mayoral adviser

To understand Nashville's juvenile crime problem, advocates said, you first have to understand the hand that's been dealt in some communities -- for example, generation after generation stuck in incredible poverty.

Many of the kids have witnessed more trauma in their young lives than most people could ever comprehend.

Sinback listed the trauma she's observed in the kids who come through juvenile court.

"Living with domestic violence, in a family with domestic violence, witnessing family members get hurt and killed and shot, witnessing neighbors and people in their community get shot and killed, witnessing all sorts of gun violence and people that they love who have had their lives altered by guns."

Take, for example, 16-year-old Myeisha Brown, the girl accused in the senseless murder of Ruxin Wang.

Wang's son sees the tragedy.

"For us, we were sad her life was thrown away at such an early age," Yun Wang said following one court hearing for Brown.

But advocates also see a girl, a voracious reader, born into one of Nashville's most violent housing projects.

Her dad, a convicted felon, was killed in a car crash when she was just six.

Her 19-year-old brother, who had also had his run-ins with the law, gunned down just last year.

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Former juvenile prosecutor Jim Todd witnessed many similar stories.

"The environment they came from is a rough environment," Todd said.

"It's not their fault that they were born into it. It's not their fault that they didn't have a father figure or parents or anyone to teach them right from wrong. It's not their fault that they chose the streets early."

Sinback noted that, "for our most troubled youth, they don't feel like they are going to live beyond 20."

"They know people who have died at very young ages from violence, from street violence, from all sorts of, you know, drug overdose," the court administrator explained.

"They don't see that their future is a given and they don't see that they have a lot to live for."

NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked, "So they have no hope?"

"These children have no hope."

Another factor is social media and the kids' search for identity.

NewsChannel 5 Investigates obtained social media posts in which a teenager already on probation repeatedly posed with guns.

"A lot of our kids are bragging about the things they are doing or sometimes the things they are not doing but that they want people to think they are doing that are extremely negative," Sinback said.

We followed up, "Social media gives them a sense of status that they don't otherwise have?"

"It absolutely does," she said.

And many of the children juvenile officials encounter come into the system with a long history of untreated mental illness.

"Some of them have been drug exposed from the earliest age," Sinback said. "They've had many diagnoses of ADHD, severe depression, conduct disorder, all sorts of things where they have been diagnosed with various problems over the years."

Last year, 14-year-old Geovany Hernandez was gunned down in the Nashboro Village area.

Court records show the shooter, 14-year-old Amarion Johnson, had a history that included ADHD, conduct disorder, major depressive disorder, borderline intellectual functioning and cannabis use disorder.

The court also heard testimony that Amarion had been "present in the home when one of his uncles shot another family member."

In addition, Judge Sheila Calloway wrote, "Amarion has suffered through other traumatic events, including the disappearance of his mother, the violent deaths of friends and family members, being homeless on the streets of Illinois, and physical abuse and neglect by his father."

Sinback continued.

"We have kids that have witnessed their siblings be killed by a parent and then that parent go to prison. We have many kids whose parents are incarcerated who have to go and visit their parents behind bars."

NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked, "They are broken?"

"These children are absolutely broken," she answered. "These children are broken and no one is trying to fix them, it seems sometimes."

A search of juvenile records shows the greatest number of charges last year came from the 37207 zip code, just north of downtown.

Close behind was 37208, which has the highest incarceration rate of any zip code in the country.

Ashford Hughes said an honest conversation about juvenile crime also requires confronting the institutional racism that broke up African-American neighborhoods and forced families into ghettos that created mass incarceration and decimated black families.

"We know that urban housing policy was based on a lot of redlining policies that actually put poor African-American people in a concentrated area," he said.

"When you talk about the data that we have that shows that black male youth are getting expelled as early as kindergarten if not before and the direct pipeline to prison which that leads to, that is public policy. That is public policy that is shaping how our youth are involved in this."

Many children in those zip codes attend some of the lowest-performing schools in the state of Tennessee -- schools that are often ill-equipped to deal with the trauma that their kids bring to the classroom.

"I think poor attachment to school systems has a lot to do with it," Judge Calloway said.

"If a child's not attached to their school, not interested in going to school, then they are out in the streets learning a different type of life."

Sinback noted that "sometimes our kids who have the biggest problems, we find out that they are 15 and they are reading at a second grade level. That's why they are acting up at schools sometimes because they are not following what the teachers teaching and they are not able to comprehend."

NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked the judge, "Is it fair to say that there are communities in our city that are in crisis?"

"I think it is fair to say that there are communities in our city that are in crisis at this time," Calloway responded.

"And no one in the city is declaring an emergency and saying that we've got to fix this problem?"

"I don't know if there's enough cries."

Vice Mayor Jim Shulman recently created a Metro Council committee to focus on the problems of the 37208 zip code, which Judge Calloway says is a good start.

"As far as I know, no one has come up with a comprehensive plan in order to make those neighborhoods not be in crisis anymore," she added.

That's why Hughes believes the juvenile crime problem must be declared a public health crisis.

"What happens in North Nashville affects what happens in Madison. The problems that affect Madison also affect what happens in the southeast of Davidson County," Hughes argued.

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"So this is a crisis of magnitude that represents the entire county."

NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked, "It's a conversation that we need to have, but we've postponed because of issues of race?"

"Absolutely," he answered, "and I believe until we really address the fundamental core root of this situation, this health crisis, I think we are not going to see much change."

The juvenile court judge says police and the courts can only do so much to help these children; if the community wants long-term solutions, it's going to take a long-term commitment.

For two years, Calloway has been asking the Metro Council for a new, $130 million facility to provide interventions that she believes are desperately needed.

"What we have to do as a community is, first of all, recognize that we are leaving people behind and recognize that when you leave people behind in such dramatic ways that that trauma causes, for some people, bitterness, causes anger, causes people to be hurt," the judge said.

"You know, there's the famous saying that 'hurt people hurt people.'"

What does she think are the consequences of not doing something?

"If we don't do something together as a community, as an entire community, then we are going to start losing people."