NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) — A legislative committee tasked with reviewing the state’s juvenile justice system made several recommendations on Wednesday that will be implemented during the 2023 session of the General Assembly.

The recommendations made by the Ad Hoc Committee on Juvenile Justice are intended to improve the Wilder Youth Development Center in Somerville as well as the broader juvenile justice system in Tennessee.

Some of the recommendations include expanding bed capacity at DCS facilities, lowering the age at which a juvenile can be found “incorrigible,” requiring 24/7 mental health services and expanding DCS prevention grants that provide after school care, curfew checks and more.

Lt. Governor Randy McNally and House Speaker Cameron Sexton tasked the committee with examining all aspects of juvenile detention and probation in Tennessee in June 2022. The committee met seven times throughout the year.

“These are issues we really dug into. We looked, we listened, and we traveled to come up with our best recommendations,” said Senate Co-Chair, Page Walley (R-Savannah). “We know there is no final solution that will solve all the challenges at DCS, but our proposals are a significant step in the right direction.”

The committee’s recommendations are based on months of hearings from various state agencies, non-profits, local law enforcement, district attorneys, juvenile judges and health care professionals. 

The recommendations will be implemented through both the budgetary and legislative processes during the 2023 session of the General Assembly.

“Providing alternative avenues that address behavioral issues but allows children to avoid the criminal justice system is in the best interest of everyone,” said House Co-Chair Mary Littleton, (R-Dickson). “I’m proud of this committee’s hard work. I believe we’ve drafted meaningful solutions to some very serious problems that will ultimately improve outcomes and transform lives.”

Below is a full list of recommendations the committee made to lawmakers and Gov. Bill Lee.

Share juvenile records among judges

One recommendation is to allow confidential juvenile records to be shared among juvenile court judges across the state in order to provide a full picture of a juvenile’s record.

The committee sees this legislation as the “first step toward addressing a large data sharing issue.”

Currently, juvenile records such as programs and services received, adjudications, and what has been successful and unsuccessful do not follow juveniles to different jurisdictions across the state.

In addition, each court has its own system which can make it difficult to combine data.

Expand bed capacity

The state needs about 180 to 190 additional male beds and 25 additional female beds at DCS facilities.

The consulting group Ernst and Young has conducted an audit of DCS facilities and will soon release its report with recommendations on the best way to increase the number of beds.

Disincentivize escapes at youth development centers

Another recommendation is to increase penalties for juveniles in youth development centers who try to escape.

The proposed legislation would allow juvenile escapees to be charged as an adult and moved to a Tennessee Department of Corrections facility. Under the bill, the juvenile would only be charged as an adult for the crime of escaping.

Expand incorrigible designation

This proposed legislation would lower the age at which a child committed to DCS for an offense punishable by confinement in the penitentiary may be found “incorrigible,” or not able to be reformed, from 18 to 17 years old.

The committee said this would allow superintends at schools like Wilder and other youth development centers to transfer “extremely uncooperative and violent 17-year-olds” to Department of Corrections facilities.

Separate violent juveniles based on age

Another measure requires children in DCS custody who are 16 years of age or older and retained in a Level III or Level IV juvenile detention facility to be separated from children under 16 years of age.

Improve employee training and compensation

Part of the committee’s recommendations also include legislation to expand training for youth services officers on the best practices for behavior management and conflict resolution when supervising juveniles with severe behavioral issues.

In addition, the committee is working with DCS to support salary improvements for DCS officers in the 2023/2024 state budget in order to attract and retain personnel.

Create a Juvenile Justice Review Commission

To continually improve practices, the committee is proposing legislation to create a Juvenile Justice Review Commission under DCS and the Tennessee Commission on Children and Youth.

The commission would regularly review juvenile justice cases and provide an annual report with
recommendations to the General Assembly. It would be modeled after the Second Look
which reviews severe child abuse cases.

Expand DCS prevention grants

The committee is proposing legislation to improve services preventing a growing number of children from entering DCS custody by expanding DCS prevention grants that provide after school care, curfew checks, school attendance checks and mental health care.

Tennessee currently has two prevention programs with an over 90% success rate. The programs serve 55 kids per year in East and West Tennessee.

Establish a juvenile step-down pilot program

Legislation is also being proposed to establish a pilot program with DCS on compliance programming. The program would provide ways for juveniles to transition from secure facilities into a homelike setting with more freedom.

Require 24/7 mental health services

The committee is recommending legislation to provide a stronger clinical presence at youth development centers by requiring 24/7 clinical mental health treatment services.

Make chaplain services available

Part of the legislative package also includes legislation to offer chaplain services at all DCS youth development facilities.

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The proposed legislation will be sponsored by members of the committee: Sen. Page Walley (R-Savannah), Sen. Ed Jackson (R-Jackson), Sen. Raumesh Akbari (D-Memphis), Rep. Mary
Littleton (R-Dickson), Rep. Lowell Russell (R-Vonore), Rep. Ron Gant (R-Piperton), Rep.
Andrew Farmer (R-Sevierville) and Rep. Johnny Shaw (D-Bolivar).

Hundreds of bills will be up for debate during the 113th General Assembly. Tennessee lawmakers shared their thoughts on some of the major issues up for discussion at this year’s legislative session.

What lawmakers had to say about: Abortion Ban Clarification | Marijuana Reform | Transgender Therapy and LGBTQ+ Rights | Dept. of Children’s Services | Education | Crime/Public Safety | More

You can also find daily coverage from the session here.