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Bill Imposing Adult Sentences on Juveniles Heads to Tennessee Gov’s Desk

The bill is part of a package to punish juvenile offenders more harshly. One senator warns the measure will bring “massive repercussions” and raises complicated legal questions.

Teens as young as 14 years old who commit serious crimes in Tennessee will face up to five years of adult incarceration or probation once their juvenile sentence ends under a bill now awaiting Gov. Bill Lee’s likely signature.

The measure also requires juvenile court judges to automatically transfer 16- and 17- year olds facing first and second degree murder, or attempted murder, to adult court.

The so-called blended sentencing measure by Republican House Speaker Cameron Sexton was part of a package of get-tough-on-juvenile-crime measures resurrected this year after a disastrous special session on public safety last summer ended with few concrete policy changes.

The measure found new life in this legislative session. Its supporters said it is intended to introduce greater flexibility in supervising serious youthful offenders beyond their 19th birthdays, when juvenile courts’ jurisdiction legally ends.

“If you truly want to try to rehabilitate young people who’ve made a mistake, blended sentencing is a great tool our judges can use to help rehabilitate those juveniles.” Memphis Republican Sen. Brent Taylor said Thursday on the Senate floor.

But the measure, which was hastily and substantially revised just before the General Assembly adjourned for the year in an effort to withstand legal challenges, has also raised bipartisan concerns about possible unintended consequences.

Rewrites to the original bill now require teens who commit a second serious offense to be sentenced to adult incarceration but held separately from adult inmates until they turn 24. The new version also includes the right to a jury trial for youth facing a dual juvenile-adult sentence — a process that could take a year or more until the trial takes place.

“So where will all these individuals be housed?,” Springfield Republican Sen. Kerry Roberts asked last week ahead of the Senate vote. “These individuals … would not be housed in the general population of the Tennessee Department of Correction. They would have to be housed separately.”

Roberts said his concern extended to pre-trial waits. While juvenile detention hearings must take place within 30 days, a jury trial could require local officials to detain a teen for over a year. Most Tennessee counties lack a juvenile detention facility. In some counties, jail may be the only option.

“I’m concerned about some unintended consequences,” Roberts said. “I’m concerned about how we’re going to house these (youth) and I’m concerned with how we’re going to pay for it….My local people say youthful offenders are likely to be in solitary confinement (in county jail) for that period of time.”

More than 440 youth have been charged with serious crimes that could warrant a blended sentence or an automatic transfer to adult court in each of the past two years, according to data from the Administrative Office of the Courts. Thus far this year, 296 youth have been charged with such crimes.

Meanwhile, most Tennessee juvenile facilities already near capacity. In total, the state has detention space for 669.

Sen. Raumesh Akbari, a Memphis Democrat, said she has long supported blended sentencing as a way to rehabilitate young people, but remains concerned about a three-strikes provision that imposes an automatic adult sentence even if a teen doesn’t commit another crime.

Juvenile judges can opt to hold a hearing to consider suspending the adult sentence once the youth reaches 19 years old. But the measure binds judges to strict criteria: if a youth has violated three or more of the rules outlined in the bill, a judge can’t waive the adult portion of the sentence and 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 includes failing to attend or graduate from high school, attend the Tennessee College of Applied Technology or get a job. No other schools are recognized by the measure.

“So let’s say the juvenile decided instead of attending a TCAT they wanted to attend a community college or a four-year institution they would be penalized because it wasn’t a TCAT,” Akbari said. “That to me makes no sense because it penalizes that individual for choosing a different educational option.”

The measure also requires trials to be held before criminal court judges. Juvenile judges would then impose the sentence.

Even in criminal court settings, youth cannot be placed within sight or sound of adult prisoners in holding areas, raising questions about how court personnel can accommodate trials, Nashville Democrat Sen. Jeff Yarbro said.

“There’s an increased number of people who are going to be subject to these partial transfers who just during lunch breaks at court or waiting for a docket can’t be kept with other individuals awaiting trial,” Yarbro said.

“Do our adult criminal courthouses have the capacity to address the influx or increase of these juveniles? That is really the concern.”

Yarbro noted the measure had gone through months of vetting in which lawmakers heard testimony from judges, district attorneys and juvenile advocates before it was rewritten during in the waning days of the session.

“This legislation…has massive repercussions,” Yarbro said. “We’re creating complicated jurisdiction and legal questions that – even if we don’t want to deal with now – the judges, DAs, and lawyers and legal systems in all 95 of our counties are dealing with later. And we’re not just supposed to say ‘good luck.’ We’re actually supposed to vet this legislation. And we have not.”

Tennessee Lookout is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Tennessee Lookout maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Holly McCall for questions: Follow Tennessee Lookout on Facebook and Twitter.
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