NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — A battle is brewing in the Tennessee legislature that could send more children to adult prisons.
Lawmakers are pushing a bill that would allow the Department of Children's Services to transfer 17-year-olds in juvenile custody to prison. Current state law allows DCS to declare an 18-year-old in juvenile custody "incorrigible" and move him to prison.
Critics claim DCS has already used that law to transfer youth because the department does not have enough beds in their juvenile facilities.
They say it is wrong to expand the incorrigible law and allow DCS to transfer 17-year-olds. Supporters of the bill say DCS needs more tools to deal with unruly youth in their juvenile detention facilities.
Incorrigible: it's a big word. The definition is someone who cannot be reformed or corrected. The word was used often in old movies, but it is still relevant today inside the troubled Department of Children's Services.
"A determination of incorrigibility means that a youth is beyond rehabilitation," said Zoe Jamail with Disability Rights Tennessee. "It's a really big deal to take a youth and transfer them to the adult system."
Jamail is concerned that lawmakers want to lower the age and expand DCS's ability to transfer children to adult prisons. During legislative hearings in October, DCS commissioner Margie Quin said 15 youths had been transferred out of juvenile detention since 2019, and into the adult system.
"Over the last three years, 15 youth were deemed incorrigible," Quin told lawmakers. "When a youth is deemed incorrigible, they are transferred to TDOC custody."
DCS said all of the transferred youth came from the Wilder Youth Development Center.
"There's no judge involved in this process," Jamail said.
Disability Rights Tennessee is concerned DCS has already transferred people "on a shorter timeline than they would like because they have no viable placement options."
In October Commissioner Quin told lawmakers the lack of available beds had played into the department's decision to transfer people.
"We are having to move incorrigibles probably more quickly than we would like to because we have no other options," Quin said.
"We have no ability to move a child that's disruptive in the system because we have no open beds," Quin said in October.
Disability Rights Tennessee was concerned by those comments.
"The decision to transfer youth from the juvenile system to the adult corrections system should never be rooted in capacity issues," Jamail said.
State lawmakers said DCS needs more options to deal with dangerous juveniles.
"We have some youth that are extraordinarily difficult to manage," said Sen. Page Walley, R-Savannah. "We're trying to have some mechanism to discourage some of this behavior."
A recent report from Disability Rights Tennessee detailed physical and sexual abuse by guards at the Wilder Youth Development Center.
Jamail said sending juveniles adult prisons just gives up on them.
"Some of the youth we spoke to, who had actually tried to escape from Wilder, said they felt like they had no other option," Jamail said.
It's a modern-day debate in the Tennessee legislature — involving an old word — and kids in DCS custody.