Juvenile advocates express concern Lee’s special session could lead to harsher penalties for minors
Several measures, including one to transfer juvenile offenders to adult court, mirror bills that failed to pass in the regular legislative session.
(Photo: Getty Images)
Gov. Bill Lee first called for a special legislative session on public safety in the weeks after a devastating act of mass gun violence, carried out by a lone adult, against children and staff at a Nashville Christian school last March.
Lee’s announcement four months later that the special session will turn its attention to new and harsher penalties for children and teens in Tennessee’s juvenile justice system has caught juvenile judges and youth advocates off-guard.
Among the 18 policy changes the governor has directed legislators to act on this month are proposed new laws that would send kids who commit crimes to adult courts and adult prisons at younger ages, subject them to new felonies and limit their ability to keep juvenile records confidential into adulthood.
Using the special session to criminalize young people, rather than expand services, is deeply problematic, especially given that youth have been at the forefront of calling for meaningful solutions to school shootings.
– Zoë Jamail, Disability Rights Tennessee
Zoë Jamail, policy director for Disability Rights Tennessee, said she was “disturbed to see the Governor and legislature propose increasing youth incarceration as a response to the tragedy at The Covenant School, a tragedy that had nothing to do with the youth justice system.”
Three nine-year-old children and three adult staff members were killed in the March 27 mass school shooting. Responding police killed the shooter.
“Using the special session to criminalize young people, rather than expand services, is deeply problematic, especially given that youth have been at the forefront of calling for meaningful solutions to school shootings,” Jamail said Wednesday.
Jamail noted that some of the governor’s proposals appear to mirror bills that failed to gain support in the Legislature just a few months ago, after pushback from state judges and advocacy organizations like hers.
Lee’s proposals for the special session, set to begin Aug. 21, remain broad and ill-defined, with no accompanying details or specific language. One of his proposals is for the “transfer of juvenile defendants aged sixteen and older to court with criminal jurisdiction,” with the right to appeal the transfer by youth and prosecutors.
A similar bill introduced earlier this year by Speaker Cameron Sexton and Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, both Republicans, would have automatically moved youth charged with certain crimes to adult court, removing discretion from the state’s juvenile judges. The bill didn’t advance, in part due to opposition from the state’s juvenile court judges.
The bill was introduced following two violent Memphis incidents that took place within the same month in the fall of 2022 — one involving a mass shooting that killed three people and another that killed a Memphis teacher out on a morning jog. The suspects in each case were adults who had juvenile records.
A spokesperson for McNally said Wednesday that the the lieutenant governor has no plans to revive the legislation during the special session but “remains supportive of the concept.”
Judge Sheila Calloway, a Nashville juvenile court judge, said she was taken aback at the governor’s proclamation, calling the proposals aimed at youth involved in the justice system “a little misguided.”
“I think the thought process that the community has been asking for … is that we want something to make sure our youth who are going to schools, there is safety for them,” she said. “It doesn’t seem like they’re addressing exactly what the community has been asking them to address.”
Calloway opposed the bill introduced this spring to automatically transfer youth to adult courts, and she will oppose any future plans to do so, she said.
Automatically transfering kids to the adult system not only takes away the discretion of juvenile judges, trained in childhood development and trauma, but adds to the already overburdened adult criminal system, where long delays for trial routinely keep adults in jails for months at a time, or longer.
It's clear when they were doing these bills the first time, someone generated numbers from the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation about juvenile crime and it showed in almost every category juvenile crime was declining in the state over the past ten years.
– Judge Sheila Calloway
It is possible, Calloway noted, that the governor’s proposal may take a different form once introduced as a bill, such as giving prosecutors the right to appeal a juvenile judge’s order preventing the transfer of a minor to adult court. Currently the decision to transfer a youth to adult court is solely up to a juvenile judge and cannot be appealed.
The state’s juvenile court judges, who have routinely testified before the Legislature about juvenile justice issues, will be weighing their response at a previously scheduled statewide conference beginning Sunday, she said.
Calloway noted that the state’s juvenile justice system underwent a comprehensive overhaul withe the 2018 Juvenile Justice Reform Act whose progress is still being measured but shows definite signs of progress — something conveyed to lawmakers in the spring when judges opposed similar bills now being proposed by Lee.
“It’s clear when they were doing these bills the first time, someone generated numbers from the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation about juvenile crime and it showed in almost every category juvenile crime was declining in the state over the past ten years.”
Youth crime in Tennessee has decreased by more than 50% since 2013, according to data from the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation.
“I hope that it’s not a situation where they’re saying, if we change juvenile laws to make it more punitive, more strict and take away more discretion from the juvenile judges on doing the things we know are working well, and say that that’s going to be a step in the right direction of community safety.”
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