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Juvenile sentencing bill in Tennessee House sparks constitutional questions

Hand in jail with girl and house of detention concept, vignette effect and selective focus.
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via Tennessee Lookout
Tennessee juvenile judges, advocates and attorneys are calling portions of a juvenile crime bill "likely unconstitutional."

Kids as young as 14 could get up to five years in prison on top of juvenile sentences without a jury trial

A get-tough-on-juvenile-crime bill is raising concerns among Tennessee juvenile judges, advocates and attorneys, who call portions of the measure “likely unconstitutional.”

The House bill from Republican House Speaker Cameron Sexton of Crossville could stack up to five years in adult prison on top of a juvenile sentence for kids as young as 14 who have committed serious crimes.

A separate component of the bill would require juvenile court judges to automatically transfer 16- and 17- year olds facing charges of first and second degree murder, or attempted murder, to adult court.

The bill gives juvenile judges another tool to keep serious offenders in the criminal justice system after they turn 19 – the age at which juvenile sentences legally end, Republican Rep. Andrew Farmer of Sevierville, said in a House committee last month.

“I know we’re saying we don’t want to do this to our youth. It’s not their fault. They haven’t had the upbringing. They haven’t had the family and a lot of times they haven’t,” Farmer said.

“Unfortunately there are situations where kids are where they are, and all we can deal with is the cards we’ve got dealt on the table and give them the opportunity for the best life possible from this point forward. That’s what the intent and policy behind this legislation is.”

Juvenile advocates say the measure would subject youth to incarceration in an adult prison without a jury trial — a Constitutional right guaranteed to every adult.

The House bill “not only allows but mandates that juvenile judges send young people who have successfully completed the juvenile justice portion of their sentence to adult prison even if they have not committed any more offenses — and it sends them to adult prison without a jury trial,” said Jasmine Miller, staff attorney with Youth Law Center.

The bill requires juvenile judges to simultaneously sentence youth who are at least 14 years old to a juvenile and adult sentence if they are in juvenile court for having committed a second serious offense. A District Attorney can also pursue the so-called blended sentence for first-time offenders.

Juvenile judges can opt to hold a hearing to consider suspending the adult sentence once the youth reaches 19 years old.

But the bill binds judges to strict criteria: if a youth has violated three or more of the rules outlined in the bill, a judge must transfer him or her to the custody of the Department of Correction for a minimum of three years – and up to five.

The criteria troubles Miller, who notes that many of the metrics that decide whether a young person would go to prison after serving his or her juvenile sentence are not crimes.

Failing to attend school regularly, failing to get passing grades, failing to graduate from high school and failing to enroll in higher education or get a job are all factors a judge would be required to consider. Three or more of these failures would legally require the judge to transfer custody of the teen to the Department of Correction.

Multiple juvenile judges have concerns about the bill

Chattanooga Juvenile Court Judge Robert Philyaw said that juvenile judges have long wished for more tools to handle serious young offenders.

But, he said, juvenile judges are in the best position to decide whether a minor should be treated as an adult.

“Not all cases are equal and not all kids are the same,” Philyaw said. “Taking someone’s status as a minor away from them is a serious prospect. Anything that tramples or takes away from our ability to have an independent judicial case and hearing is problematic from my standpoint.”

Davidson County Juvenile Judge Sheila Calloway said she shares concerns about the constitutionality of the blended sentencing portion of the bill, which denies a young person the right to a trial before being sentenced to prison. Calloway said she is also concerned about the automatic transfer of 16- and 17-year-olds to adult courts.

Most teens accused of felony murder are already transferred to adult court, she said. But juvenile judges also encounter situations, particularly among youth facing attempted murder charges, that are not always clear cut.

Juvenile judges can assess whether a child was the primary aggressor, for example or a victim of trafficking — a criteria Tennessee lawmakers in 2022 required judges to take into consideration when sentencing juveniles. Keeping young people under the jurisdiction of juvenile courts also provides them with rehabilitative services and legally mandated education services — services that may not be provided in adult prisons, Calloway noted.

“Once you lose the ability to make those decisions, it opens the door to youths being sent to the adult system that do not have to,” Calloway said.

Juvenile judges across the state offered to meet with lawmakers last summer to go over concerns about the bill after a version of the bill was introduced in the Senate last year, but were not given the chance, Calloway said. “We have not been invited,” she said.

Preston Shipp, a former Tennessee prosecutor who now serves as senior policy counsel for the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth, said the bill also ignores the deeper understanding that has developed in recent years in the field of juvenile justice, including the science of child brain development which points to the capacity to “age out of crime.”

“You don’t need to let them off,” he said. “But we need age-appropriate accountability. They are not little adults. They do not belong in an adult environment.”

The bill is scheduled to be heard Tuesday in a House committee.

Anita Wadhwani is a senior reporter for the Tennessee Lookout. The Tennessee AP Broadcasters and Media (TAPME) named her Journalist of the Year in 2019 as well as giving her the Malcolm Law Award for Investigative Journalism. Wadhwani is formerly an investigative reporter with The Tennessean who focused on the impact of public policies on the people and places across Tennessee. She is a graduate of Columbia University in New York and the University of California at Berkeley School of Journalism. Wadhwani lives in Nashville with her partner and two children.
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