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  • Theeda Murphy

Tennessee Kids Need Care and Support Not Punishment


THE CASE AGAINST HB1029/SB1159 and HB1104/SB608

The Tennessee State Legislature continues its movement backwards with the introduction of HB1029/SB1159 and HB1104/SB608. While on their face, these bills seem innocuous and simple, the effects that they would have on children caught up in the juvenile system could be catastrophic, opening the way for a plethora of unintended consequences.

Children Need Care

These bills are opening the way for mandatory referral of youth to the adult system. This is a thoroughly bad and backward idea when we know that 80% of youth at Wilder Youth Development Center have a disability and/or a mental health diagnosis. Many of these children had limited access to mental health care prior to their adjudication and transfer to an adult facility practically guarantees that they will not receive treatment.

It's hard enough for our kids who are being raised in foster care and under DCS supervision. Do we really want an entire generation of kids being raised in adult jails and prisons? What kind of future can we expect for our entire society when children are being adjudicated as adult criminals? What chance did these children have to learn anything different?

These Bills Are Unnecessary

There is no need for this. Based on arrest data compiled by the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, there is not an overall spike in violent crime by youth. Crimes against persons arrests for 17-yr-olds have declined from 1202 to 748 since 2014. While there has been some increase in arrests between 2020 and 2021, number of arrests in 2021 is still well below the number of arrests in 2019. Total arrests of youth in 2019 were 14,646, in 2020 9,605, in 2021, 10,286.

Two offense categories that legislators are sometimes concerned about are murders and carjackings. The data does not show dramatic increases in either category. Murders are so rarely committed by youth that it is not possible to meaningfully track trends statistically.

There's no specific arrest data on carjacking because that is not a category that TBI reports specifically. It's possible that carjacking is being reported under motor vehicle theft, and if so, there was a decline from 2004 to the early 2010s. Robberies are the more likely proxy for carjackings and those numbers are clearly down since 2014.

The data simply does not support the idea that young people are running wild in the streets waging a war of terror on the populace.

We Can't Afford This

Furthermore, transferring youth to adult court costs money. Youth transferred to adult court spend longer in detention than they would if they remained in juvenile court, which results in kids staying in already-crowded facilities for a much longer time. If youth are held in adult facilities either pretrial or after they are sentenced, there are increased costs associated with staffing or retrofitting facilities to accommodate them. Adult court resources, which are already spread thin, given current large court backlogs, will then have to add new transfer hearings to already huge court dockets. There will need to be thousands of new hearings a year. This is simply not sustainable.

Harsh Punishments for Kids Hurt Us All

Finally, the overwhelming consensus of the mental health and psychiatric community is that adolescents simply do not have the maturity and cognitive capacity to make decisions in the same way as fully grown adults do. Is it fair or right to hold them to adult standards when they haven't had the opportunity to fully grow up? How are we helping them, or ourselves, when we punish them in ways they cannot fully understand?

What Can You Do?

HB1029 is scheduled to be heard in the Criminal Justice Subcommittee this week on 3/14/23. Please call and email the head of the committee: Representative Clay Doggett, or call him at (615) 741-7476.

You Can Also Contact the Rest of the Committee

Other committee members are:

Representative Scotty Campbell -, (615) 741-2050

Representative Elaine Davis -, (615) 741-2287

Representative John Gillespie -, (615) 741-8201

Representative G. A. Hardaway -, (615) 741-5625

Representative Dan Howell -, (615) 741-7799

Representative Bud Hulsey -, (615) 741-2886

Representative Gloria Johnson -, (615) 741-2031

Representative William Lamberth -, (615) 741-1980

Representative Debra Moody -, (615) 741-3774

Representative Lowell Russell -, (615) 741-3736

Representative Paul Sherrell -, (615) 741-1963

Representative Joe Towns, Jr. -, (615) 741-2189

Tell them that Tennessee children need care and support, not punishment and to vote NO on HB1029.

Information compiled by the Youth Law Center

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