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'Broken' special examines juvenile crime problem

Posted: 4:56 PM, Dec 06, 2019
Updated: 2019-12-10 12:22:27-05
BROKEN: Juv. justice center

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

The one-hour, prime-time special aired Monday, Dec. 9th, at 9 p.m. on WTVF-TV and on NewsChannel 5's Facebook page. (The video is posted above.)

It follows a month-long focus on the juvenile crime problems plaguing Nashville and surrounding counties, resulting in almost a dozen in-depth reports that exposed the broken juvenile system and explored ways that those problems could be fixed.

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"It's outdated, it's broken, it's in catastrophic failure."

For that investigation, NewsChannel 5 was able to obtain eight years of juvenile crime data.

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

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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.
  • 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 those homes are the best places for them.
  • The number of children charged with handgun possession continues to grow. Among those repeatedly arrested are juveniles who have previously been implicated in homicides.
  • Among the reasons for the increase in handgun possession cases, officials point to a state law that allowed Tennessee gun owners to keep their weapons in their automobiles. Lawmakers have declined to impose penalties for leaving 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. 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 what is essentially 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. Some say Nashville needs to declare a "public health crisis" and tackle complex root causes that include institutional racism.
  • 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.

So far, as a result of NewsChannel 5's investigation, the Department of Children's Services has taken steps to increase its supervision of juvenile offenders and a state lawmaker has called for legislation to outlaw the use of solitary confinement for children.

Special Section: Broken

Videos available on NewsChannel 5's app on Roku, Amazon Fire TV, Apple TV