A prosecutor from another state recently asked me about Tennessee’s recidivism rate for juvenile offenders, to which my answer was, “I don’t know.” To be fair, no one in Tennessee really knows the answer to that question. This is because data collection across the counties is inconsistent, and Tennessee has no mechanism by which jurisdictions can share information about youths who are, or have been, engaged in the juvenile justice system of a specific jurisdiction. Thus, a youth engaged in the juvenile justice system in Madison County might reoffend in Henry County without either jurisdiction having knowledge of the other offense. This lack of information impedes the state’s ability to grade the system, since recidivism rates are key to quantifying the effectiveness of its juvenile justice programs, and the system as a whole.

In part 1 of my blog series on the findings from the Joint Ad Hoc Tennessee Blue Ribbon Task Force, I highlighted the Task Force’s recommendation that juveniles convicted of delinquent or unruly offenses be diverted from costly, out-of-home placements and into community programs. Deficiencies in Tennessee’s data collection and information sharing were also included in the Task Force report. It specifically found that “a lack of comprehensive data collection across counties limits the information available to probation officers, treatment providers, and courts about individual youth and impedes accountability of the juvenile justice system.” The Task Force recommends that Tennessee enhance data collection and information sharing across agencies in the juvenile justice system. These agencies must have uniform definitions and criteria “to ensure there is clear and consistent reporting across all agencies and all counties…” It specifically calls on the Administrative Office of Courts, the Department of Children’s Services, and Tennessee Commission for Children and Youth develop a plan for the “increased data collection and performance measures.”

This recommendation is extremely important. Those of us who advocate for criminal justice reform often focus on the importance of increased reliance upon diversion programs, and rightfully so. However, it is also imperative that we are able to measure the success of our justice system, including any programs that it has implemented, in order to promote accountability and ensure tax dollars are spent responsibly. Juvenile justice is no different. Thus, the data collection issues identified by the Task Force must be addressed by the Legislature as a part of the juvenile justice reform package that I trust will be passed during the 2018 Legislative Session.