Tennessee is in the infancy of its comprehensive juvenile justice system reform. However, some lessons have been learned. If racial and ethnic justice is a priority, every proposed provision of the reform must be viewed through a racial and ethnic justice lens.
To pass the best legislation possible and potentially avoid challenges to the legislation, key stakeholders within the juvenile justice system must be meaningfully engaged early and often. Adequate thought should be given to not only the stakeholder categories, but also the right people within the category.
Additionally, states looking to undergo comprehensive juvenile justice system reform should establish an implementation team as soon as possible. Their work should begin when the legislation becomes law. The implementation team should not only be diverse in professions and expertise, but also racially and ethnically diverse. States should also consider placing a youth with juvenile justice system experience on the implementation team.
Here’s how we did it:
Tennessee is taking a two-pronged approach to reducing disproportionate minority contact (DMC), working at the statewide and local levels. At the statewide level, Tennessee conducted a detailed analysis of its juvenile justice system that involved a multitiered analysis of 2016-18. Among other things, the analysis revealed racial disparities across all stages of the juvenile justice system.
In part as a result of this analysis, the Tennessee Juvenile Justice Reform Act of 2018 (JJ Reform Act) was enacted by the General Assembly and signed by Gov. Bill Haslam in May 2018. The act contains several provisions likely to reduce DMC by providing additional objectivity at various decision-making points.
Under the act, delinquent and unruly petitions filed by school personnel based on acts that occurred on school grounds must show school personnel have sought to resolve the problem through educational services. It must also show that court intervention is needed in the petitioner’s opinion, unless there is a threat to school safety or there are exceptional circumstances determined by law enforcement. The JJ Reform Act also mandates school personnel shall seek to engage parents, guardians or legal custodians in resolving the child’s behavior before filing a petition.
Arrest warrants can’t be issued for a violation of conditions or limitations of probation, home placement supervision or diversion unless the child poses a significant likelihood of significant injury to another person or significant likelihood of damage to property; or the child cannot be located by the supervising persons or entity. Before the enactment JJ Reform Act, no such explicit prohibition existed in statute.
The act limits the courts’ ability to place a child in the custody of the state for violation of probation in the following circumstances:
- The child is separately adjudicated dependent or neglected and placement in the custody of the state is warranted based on the dependency and neglect adjudication;
- The child is separately adjudicated delinquent and placed in the custody of the state for an eligible delinquent offense arising out of a subsequent criminal episode other than the offense for which the child has been placed on probation; or
- The court finds by clear and convincing evidence that the child is in imminent risk of danger to their health or safety and needs specific treatment or services that are available only if the child is placed in the custody of the department.
Changes at local level
For more information on Racial-Ethnic Fairness, go to JJIE Resource Hub | Racial-Ethnic Fairness
Madison County is one of the places where DMC is being addressed at the local level. Madison County Juvenile Court operates an evening reporting center (ERC). Youth referred to the ERC are 12 to 17 and have delinquent charges (a petition), but do not pose a significant threat to the community.
The ERC operates 3 to 8 p.m., Monday through Friday during the school year, providing positive activities. An analysis of law enforcement contact patterns for Madison County indicates most juvenile contacts with law enforcement not involving a school resource officer happen during those hours. The ERC is also an alternative to detaining youth. It serves an average of 21 youth per year; approximately 91% of those youth are black.
Shelby County is another place DMC is being addressed at the local level. Shelby County is in the process of using the Pennsylvania DMC Youth/Law Enforcement Corporation’s DMC reduction curriculum to support ongoing DMC reduction efforts. This model uses a training format that gathers both youth and law enforcement in an integrated setting. These integrated settings provide youth and law enforcement the opportunity to learn more about each other and develop relationships.
The University of Tennessee Health Science Center has taken the lead on implementing the curriculum in Shelby County. The center will use a comprehensive, culturally competent community engagement strategy to identify youth and families to participate in focus groups and training with the curriculum.
The center’s efforts support some of the DMC reduction efforts of the Juvenile Court of Memphis and Shelby County. Those efforts include the ongoing activities of court’s strategic planning workgroup. The workgroup is comprised of community stakeholders who meet monthly to discuss, evaluate and implement DMC reduction efforts that occur within Memphis and Shelby County Juvenile Court and the community.
The Tennessee DMC coordinator presents and continues to support DMC training of juvenile court staff. New court staff receives training regarding the meaning of DMC and how it impacts the lives of children of color in the juvenile justice system. This training is designed to equip employees with protocols to reduce DMC.
As a licensed attorney, Craig Hargrow has served the children and families of Tennessee in various capacities for approximately 22 years. Currently, he is an employee of the Tennessee Commission on Children and Youth (TCCY) where he advocates for children as the director of the Tennessee Second Look Commission, as TCCY’s director of the Juvenile Justice Division, disproportionate minority contact coordinator for Tennessee, general counsel and the deputy executive director.