Monday, December 4th, Tennessee’s Ad Hoc Tennessee Blue Ribbon Task Force on Juvenile Justice unveiled its report following its comprehensive study on the overall state of Tennessee’s Juvenile Justice System. The Task Force projects that, as a whole, the reforms and reinvestment of $4.5 million will ultimately reduce the delinquent population 36 percent by FY 2024. This will save tax payers $36 million over the course of the next 5 years.

Because there are many facets to the Task Force’s recommendations, I will post a series of blogs that focus on each nuance of the report. The first recommendation I will highlight calls for an expansion and mandatory utilization of diversion programs, rather than the current reliance upon out-of-home placement.

The Task Force expressly recommends “every court to use informal adjustment where appropriate.” This recommendation is in response to the discovery that that 44 percent of youths placed in out-of-home facilities were convicted of non-violent misdemeanors, technical violations of the conditions of supervision, or an unruly offense (such as running away, habitual truancy, or habitual disobedience). Out of the current population, 1,100 juveniles are in state custody for unruly or delinquent offenses. The Task Force also noted significant disparities, particularly in rural communities, in the availability of community programs and resources for kids in the juvenile justice system.

The ability of a child to stay at home and with his or her families should not depend on the resources available in the jurisdiction in which they live. Each judicial district has the same needs for evidence-based alternatives to out-of-home facilities, especially for those kids whose offenses are nonviolent in nature. Alternative programs are significantly less expensive, considering it costs $230,000 a year to have a kid in an expensive out-of-home facility. For context, this is 27 times more costly than juvenile probation.

In addition to disparities in resources and availability of alternative programs, the lack of statewide guidelines has led to wildly inconsistent treatment for juvenile offenses. In other words, a kid who commits a nonviolent offense may be placed in a facility away from their home, while another jurisdiction diverts kids who commit the same offense into a community supervision program. The data found that this inconsistency was not always the result of lack of resources. Instead, it boiled down to certain jurisdictions choosing to pursue court action against the majority, if not all, juvenile offenses, including minor offenses.

The Task Force calls for a prohibition on the use of detention facilities for unruly and delinquent juvenile offenses, and a presumption against the use of detention facilities unless the offense is a felony against a person, or a repeat felony offender. The presumption can be rebutted if the court finds that the juvenile “presents a significant risk of physical harm to another person.” The Task Force also calls for modifications to the state code that limits the circumstances for which a juvenile can be detained. Further, there are calls for a prohibition on detention of youths under 12, with a 24 hour detention limit, unless there is a written finding of extraordinary circumstances to justify the detention..

It also calls for the implementation of post-disposition, validated risk-needs assessments, individualized case plans for each juvenile, and statewide guidelines on behavior responses. Moreover, juveniles are not to return to court for technical violations, unless there are “documented attempts” to correct behavior that makes the intervention of the court necessary.

Tennessee must reform the current practice of sending kids to out-of-home detention facilities for delinquent and unruly offenses. It serves neither the interest of justice or fairness to simply send a child to a facility away from their support system because their behavior requires correction. The system must ensure that all children, regardless of the jurisdiction in which they reside, have access to the same quality support, community programs, and treatment services.  I applaud each member of the Task Force for recommending effective means for ensuring progress towards this end, while also saving tax payer dollars.