Juvenile justice recommendations from legislature lean heavily on institutions

Committee suggests therapists on hand 24 hours a day, but also a new facility and transfer of “incorrigible” kids to Department of Corrections

By: - January 26, 2023 6:02 am
Sign at the entrance to the John S. Wilder Youth Development Center. Reports have chronicled instances of verbal, physical and sexual assault of juveniles housed at the facility. (Photo: Google Earth)

Sign at the entrance to the John S. Wilder Youth Development Center. Reports have chronicled instances of verbal, physical and sexual assault of juveniles housed at the facility. (Photo: Google Earth)

A legislative committee charged with reviewing the state’s troubled juvenile justice system made more than a dozen recommendations on Wednesday that are expected to serve as a blueprint for General Assembly action this year. 

Among the recommendations from the Ad Hoc Committee on Juvenile Justice: constructing a new secure lockup for youth, adding mental health professionals and chaplains at facilities housing kids deemed delinquent, raising officer salaries and funding more so-called prevention grants designed to keep kids from getting into criminal trouble. 

The recommendations, said Sen. Page Walley, R-Savannah, are a “useful combination of redemptive, restorative for these young men, young women, their families, for our communities but is also going to allow for some accountability that we know is important when we are also charged with making sure communities feel secure and safe and that services are provided in a constitutional manner.”

Walley served as co-chair of the committee along with Rep. Mary Littleton, R-Dickson.

The committee was created at the request of Gov. Bill Lee last summer in response to a damning report chronicling disturbing conditions at DCS-operated Wilder Youth Development Center. 

Mixed bag: Suggestions from the Ad-Hoc Committee on Juvenile Justice include requiring a therapist to be on site at juvenile facilities 24 hours a day, but also transferring kids deemed “incorrigible” to the Tennessee Department of Correction at age 17.

The report, a result of a 20-month investigation by Disability Rights Tennessee and the Youth Law Center, chronicled instances of physical, sexual and verbal abuse and harassment of boys and young men at the facility. 

In December, the two groups issued a new report containing a series of recommendations to lawmakers and DCS. The report, titled “Families Not Facilities,” urged state leaders to pivot away from institutionalizing kids and instead place more emphasis – and state dollars – on services for struggling families, including more mental health care in local communities. 

Wednesday’s legislative committee recommendations, however, heavily leaned on institutional solutions for kids who get into trouble. 

“We are certainly grateful for the work the committee has done in shedding light on ongoing issues within Tennessee’s youth justice system,” said Zoë Jamail, policy coordinator for Disability Rights Tennessee

Jamail highlighted one recommendation for praise that would require ongoing reviews of individual kids’ experiences by the Tennessee Second Look Commission, which currently reviews the steps taken by state officials in instances when children have been abused more than once.

“We were hoping for more family-centered solutions addressing the needs of children involved with DCS,” she said.

The committee recommended building a new hardwire secured facility to provide an additional 180-190 beds for boys and 25 for girls. 

In an effort to retain security staff, the lawmakers also recommended increasing compensation and providing more training for staff at secure juvenile facilities. One recommendation included requiring therapists to be on hand 24 hours per day at all DCS operated juvenile facilities; another includes making chaplain services available in these institutions.

Lawmakers also recommended that juveniles who escape from a DCS lockup be charged as adults and that the judicial system be given the  expanded ability to transfer kids deemed “incorrigible” to the Tennessee Department of Correction. Currently incorrigible kids in DCS custody may be transferred to adult prisons at age 18; lawmakers suggested that be lowered to age 17. 

Jamail noted that the recommendation reflected a “misunderstanding of the system itself.”  Such transfers aren’t subject to any judicial oversight and are at the discretion of DCS and the Tennessee Department of Corrections.

Of greater concern, she said, is that transfers are occurring at all.

“It’s a very big deal to transfer youth,” she said. Such transfers occur without youth having any legal representation and without oversight of juvenile court judges. “It should be used only in limited capacities.”

Among the committee’s other recommendations: creating a more central system of juvenile records, accessible to juvenile judges across the state, along with giving judges the right to review a child’s DCS case file, separating kids under 16 years from age from older kids at DCS juvenile facilities and creating a “step down” program so kids leaving DCS lockups are housed in more home-like settings before being released from custody. 

DCS operates both the state’s foster care system as well as its juvenile justice programs. The agency has come under intense scrutiny for months over its inability to find safe and secure placements for children in its care.


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Anita Wadhwani
Anita Wadhwani

Anita Wadhwani is a senior reporter for the Tennessee Lookout. The Tennessee AP Broadcasters and Media (TAPME) named her Journalist of the Year in 2019 as well as giving her the Malcolm Law Award for Investigative Journalism. Wadhwani is formerly an investigative reporter with The Tennessean who focused on the impact of public policies on the people and places across Tennessee.