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Why are unruly kids going into the juvenile justice system, and why am I paying for it?

| March 7, 2018

The Joint Ad-Hoc Blue Ribbon Task Force on Juvenile Justice raised issues related to the significant number of kids being removed from their homes for unruly or minor delinquent offenses in its report released this past December.  Governor Haslam’s Juvenile Justice Reform Act aims to address these concerns by reducing the number of out-of-home placements for kids who commit unruly, or otherwise minor delinquent offenses

Tennessee currently sends kids to juvenile court—which can lead to out-of-home placement—for behavior that used to land you in the principal’s office.  The task force found that nearly half of the kids placed in out-of-home facilities were only guilty of misdemeanors, unruliness, or technical violations. Moreover, there’s no time limit to how long kids can be placed in these facilities or otherwise subject to the supervision of the juvenile justice system. The task force noted that kids are in the custody of the Department of Children’s Services (DCS) for an average of 11 months, a 10 percent increase since 2012.  Governor Haslam has warned that removing kids from their families and schools for minor offenses actually increases the risk that they will reoffend.

Removing a child from their home and placing them into a detention facility for behavior such as habitual truancy or disobedience is not only questionable, but also very expensive. The task force noted that “DCS currently spends $230,000 per bed per year on its most expensive placements, more than 27 times the cost of state probation.”  Placing kids into costly detention facilities or other out-of-home placements, rather than into an alternative probation program that would allow them to remain at home, actually diverts resources away from youth who pose legitimate safety risks to their communities.

The Juvenile Justice Reform Act restricts the use of detention or out-of-home placement for kids adjudicated for an unruly offense.  It further places a six-month limit on the length of time that a child adjudicated for a low-level offense can be subject to the supervision of the juvenile justice system or DCS. The cap may be extended for an additional six-months, but only upon showing that the “treatment and rehabilitation of the child require that the child complete an evidence-based program addressing a treatment need, and, for delinquent offenses, that treatment need shall be identified by a validated risk and needs assessment.” Moreover, schools will be encouraged to address unruly behavior directly with the child and the child’s family before engaging the court system.

In addition to serving the best interest of children who find themselves in the juvenile justice system, the Juvenile Justice Reform Act will boast a significant cost savings for taxpayers.  The Act itself does not set forth the exact amount of cost savings. However, the task force report projects that adoption of the its recommendations, many of which are included in the Act, would save $36 million over the first 5 years.

Tennessee lawmakers must fix how the current juvenile justice system handles unruly or delinquent behavior.  In fact, there are number of reforms contained in the Juvenile Justice Reform Act aimed at addressing numerous systemic failures within the system that can no longer be ignored.  It is my hope that the Legislature carefully weighs the deficiencies of the juvenile justice system’s status quo, as well as the associated consequences, and chooses to take bold steps toward reform.


JULIE WARREN is a graduate of Marshall University and of Regent University School of Law. She also attended Georgetown Law Center as a visiting student. While in law school, she clerked on the Senate Judiciary Committee. Julie served four years at the U.S. Department of Justice in Washington, D.C. After a few years in private practice as a civil defense litigator, Julie returned to public service and began her work in the Office of the West Virginia Attorney General where she primarily served as an appellate advocate for the State of West Virginia and as legislative counsel to the Attorney General.