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One-hour special examines Tennessee's 'Broken' juvenile justice system

Posted at 2:09 PM, Dec 19, 2020
and last updated 2020-12-29 09:54:33-05

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — "Broken," a special report that airs in prime time on NewsChannel 5, takes an in-depth look at the station's unprecedented investigation of Tennessee's juvenile justice system.

The one-hour special airs tonight, Tuesday, Dec. 29th at 9 p.m. on NewsChannel 5.

“Broken” has been an 18-month effort led by chief investigative reporter Phil Williams and photojournalist Bryan Staples, who were joined by every member of the NewsChannel 5 Investigates team and other journalists who have extensively reported on juvenile crime in our city.

The goal of the project: we did not want viewers to just see offenders or “bad kids,” as TV news often portrays them. Instead, this series of stories invited our viewers to “see the child” failed by the system.

“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 veteran community activist Ashford Hughes Sr. “This is absolutely a public health crisis."

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The approach to this critically important effort was unprecedented in local journalism, with Williams using a little-known research provision of Tennessee law to obtain eight years of juvenile crime data.

While the data did not contain names, by cross-checking specific charges with dates of publicly known crimes, the investigative team developed unique insight into the path that sometimes leads to murder.

Among the key findings:

  • At least two thirds of children charged with murder in Nashville had prior criminal histories that should have set off alarms within the state’s juvenile justice system.
  • State law prevents Juvenile Court officials "from detaining juveniles in many of the situations where they need detention the most." Children who were allowed to be out late at night committing crimes are returned home without the ability to ascertain whether other placements or interventions are urgently needed.
  • Desperate parents, dealing with uncontrollable children and uncertain how to respond, are routinely threatened with arrest for child neglect or abandonment if they are reluctant to pick up troubled children who have been arrested and taken to detention.
  • The number of children charged with handgun possession continues to grow. Among those repeatedly arrested with guns are juveniles who have previously been implicated in homicides.
  • Among the reasons for the increase in handgun cases, officials point to a state law that allowed gun owners to keep their weapons in their automobiles. Pro-gun lawmakers have declined to impose penalties for leaving those guns unsecured.
  • Auto thefts by juveniles have skyrocketed in the last five years. State law does not distinguish between the theft of a car and a candy bar. Both are considered non-violent property crimes, and juvenile officials are not allowed to detain such suspects.
  • Some horrific crimes have been committed by juveniles who were supposed to be under the supervision of the Tennessee Department of Children's Services (DCS). Among the problems: DCS does not do unannounced home visits to offenders' homes because they are considered "too difficult." DCS caseworkers rely heavily on electronic monitors, but they have been slow to respond when offenders go off the radar or violate restrictions.
  • DCS allows juvenile detention facilities to lock children up in solitary confinement. DCS claims its rules prohibit solitary confinement, but do allow "room restrictions" where kids are locked up alone for 24 hours a day for days at a time. Experts say such practices can make children more violent.
  • Much of Nashville's juvenile crime problems are being driven by deep-seated societal problems beyond the control of police.
  • Even though early intervention is key to putting kids back on the right path, Nashville relies heavily on poorly funded volunteer organizations to help accomplish that goal.

"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."

Our “Broken” series began a community conversation.

Tennessee’s juvenile judges released a joint statement in early 2020, warning that the state’s juvenile justice system had “reached a crisis stage.”

A state audit, released in December 2020, confirmed many of the findings of our investigation, including a failure of DCS caseworkers to provide proper oversight of the troubled offenders assigned to them.

DCS has begun to revamp the lax practices that put violent teens back out of the streets with very little monitoring. Beginning in October 2020, an Electronic Monitoring Unit was created to provide round-the-clock supervision of the most violent offenders.

The Department says it is rewriting its rules to better clarify rules against solitary confinement of juveniles.

Special Section: Broken

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