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Tennessee’s Juvenile Justice Reform Act of 2018 sets the stage for sweeping reform in the future

The 110th General Assembly of the Tennessee Legislature just wrapped up. There were a number of steps taken toward meaningful justice reform. The most notable reform—in my view—is the passage of the Juvenile Justice Reform Act of 2018. The Act was the result of the work of the Joint Ad-Hoc Blue Ribbon Task Force on Juvenile Justice, chaired by Speaker Beth Harwell and Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris, and Governor Haslam’s commitment to juvenile justice reform, having prioritized this issue in his final legislative agenda.

The Act will require that stakeholders develop a data collection infrastructure and performance measures to better track outcomes for youth and improve cross-agency information-sharing. It will also ensure that Tennessee invests its limited public safety dollars into the most effective community-based programs, expanding the use of these programs for youth who would otherwise be placed in out-of-home facilities. Another critical function of the Act is that it requires the use of validated risk and needs assessments to assist courts in adjudicating delinquent or unruly behavior by addressing the root causes and challenges of such behavior. While the Act only adopted several of the Task Force recommendations, it’s an important first step that will lay the foundation for further reforms.

If adopted as written by the commission, the original Act would have immediately decreased the number of youths placed in out-of-home placements for minor and unruly offenses, which would have resulted in greater cost savings. Unfortunately, after being amended due to criticism by judges, those impacts were reduced significantly.  That said, I should remind folks that the deficiencies in Tennessee’s juvenile justice system did not develop overnight, and great applause should be given to many lawmakers who worked tirelessly to improve Tennessee’s juvenile justice system. Their efforts have laid the groundwork to wholly fix these deficiencies in the future. This will require the commitment of a marathon not a sprint, and the reforms contained in the Act are significant and necessary toward getting across the finish line.

We must remain committed to addressing the very pressing remaining issues facing our youth by embracing data-driven, research-based policies that have been proven to help children and families succeed.

I am very encouraged by the steps contained in the Juvenile Justice Reform Act of 2018. While it may not have given us everything we wanted in one fell swoop, I believe the Act will be the impetus for effective, comprehensive reforms in the future.   I call it a qualified win for the State of Tennessee with potential for bigger wins to come.

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