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New law gives judges new tools for dealing with juveniles, increases detention options

Follows NewsChannel 5's 'Broken' investigation
Posted at 4:46 PM, Apr 19, 2021
and last updated 2021-05-06 14:14:47-04

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — A new state law is giving Tennessee's juvenile judges a new set of tools to deal with kids committing crime.

The just-passed legislation is designed to address some of the critical breakdowns uncovered during NewsChannel 5's "Broken" investigation of Tennessee's juvenile justice system.

But the new law is not without controversy.

"This gives those juvenile judges the discretion to decide: does that child need to be in detention or not?" said the bill's House sponsor, Rep. William Lamberth, R-Portland.

During our investigation, NewsChannel 5 Investigates heard complaints about how difficult it was for judges to intervene with young offenders before they became violent.

Out on patrol with Metro Nashville Police Department's juvenile crime task force, our cameras were there as officers apprehended a 17-year-old in a stolen car, knowing that -- within three hours -- he would be released from juvenile detention.

"He's going to be right back in our communities so he can steal another car and continue to commit crimes," said then-Lt. Blaine Whited.

NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked Davidson County Juvenile Court administrator Kathy Sinback, "The law draws no distinction between stealing a candy bar and stealing a car?"

"That's absolutely true," Sinback answered, noting that state law treated all property offenses exactly the same. "Under juvenile law, they are treated the same in terms of not being able to detain them."

It was also a major point of contention for former juvenile prosecutor Jim Todd.

"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," Todd said.

"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."

Under the newly passed legislation, juvenile judges would not only be able to hold kids arrested for a crime involving serious injury or death to a victim.

Now included: burglary, aggravated burglary, especially aggravated burglary and theft of a motor vehicle.

Sumner County Juvenile Judge David Howard pushed for the legislation after seeing kids stealing cars in his county, even leading police on long chases, knowing they'd probably get to go home as soon as they were caught.

"We need time to figure out what their prior history is, have they had any prior adjudications as a delinquent? Where are their parents?" Howard told NewsChannel 5 Investigates.

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But Davidson County Juvenile Judge Sheila Calloway worries that the law could be used to lock up kids accused of less serious offenses.

"Some of the car thefts there may be some issues as to safety of the community -- particularly the ones that are stealing cars by force or by using weapons, yes," Calloway said.

"But if there is just a property crime then we are doing more harm when we hold children in detention."

During the debate in the state House, Democrats raised questions about another provision that would give judges the option of locking up kids in local juvenile detention facilities after they've been found guilty.

Previously, detention in local juvenile facilities was limited to 48 hours on non-school days.

Otherwise, kids had to be put in the custody of the Department of Children's Services or sent to the state system.

"It gives judges the discretion to keep children in a detention facility for however long they see as appropriate," Calloway said.

We asked, "Months?"

The judge answered, "There's no guidelines in that bill. So theoretically it could be years."

Judge Howard said he just needs another tool to try to get the attention of kids who think the juvenile system is a joke, without having to put them in state custody or transferring them to adult court.

"Number one, it's not talking about indefinite detention," Howard said.

"It's not looking at 30 days. I'd be happy with seven days, I'd be happy with 10 days. But two days, which is the current statute, which can then be served on only on-school days, becomes a problem."

Judge Calloway argued that studies have shown putting kids behind bars without treatment only makes things worse.

"It does not reduce crime. It does not help children to rehabilitate. It does not make our communities safer," she added.

"We're going backwards when we lock them up without any formalized treatment and rehabilitation."

But Howard countered that a lot of communities didn't feel safe under the old rules.

"In a system which is designed for decriminalization, we still have to have some idea of deterrence. Otherwise, then, kids begin to figure out that the juvenile court really does not have a lot of of the power."

Our NewsChannel 5 investigation also uncovered problems with kids essentially being kept in solitary confinement, sometimes for days on end.

Now a separate piece of legislation is also on its way to becoming law to reform those practices.