Policy Brief: Reforming Juvenile Justice in Tennessee


March 13, 2018 9:41AM

The Problem

In 2017, the Ad Hoc Tennessee Blue Ribbon Task Force on Juvenile Justice convened to undertake a comprehensive study of our state’s juvenile justice system. Among its key findings, the task force discovered that the majority of delinquent children placed in out-of-home facilities were convicted of unruly offenses (such as running away or violating curfew), simple misdemeanors, or technical violations. In fact, across Tennessee, there are more than 1,100 children in state custody for unruly or delinquent offenses. The task force further found that in the last five years, the amount of time that children spend in these facilities away from their homes and families has increased by 10 percent. It also found that the average time a child will spend under state probation supervision has increased 18 percent during that time period. The task force also discovered significant disparities in the outcomes of juveniles from one jurisdiction to another. The disparities are attributed to a lack of quality services available in certain jurisdictions, as well as lack of statewide guidelines.

The Solution

The state should establish clear statewide guidelines to ensure that youth are not treated differently from one part of the state to another. In order to ensure that children remain in their homes and with their families whenever possible, community-based programs should be prioritized over out-of-home placements, especially for unruly and minor delinquent offenses. Finally, there must be guidelines as to the amount of time a child spends in the juvenile justice system.

How to Do It

There is currently a lack of consistent statewide data to determine how children within the juvenile justice system are being treated from one jurisdiction to another. It is imperative that Tennessee improves its data collection and information sharing across the state so that policymakers can understand the level of the problem, identify trends, and offer deeper reforms as needed. As it currently stands, the state does not have the data necessary to determine the rate of recidivism of juveniles engaged in the system. This lack of information makes it virtually impossible for the state to accurately grade the effectiveness of the system since recidivism rates are key to quantifying the effectiveness of its juvenile justice programs, and the system as a whole. Along with improved data, the implementation of consistent assessment tools would enable the courts to make informed decisions based on the risks and needs of each child.

The adoption of statewide guidelines will improve the disparity in outcomes across the state. Currently, a child in one county may be placed on probation or even receive a mere warning for an infraction, whereas a child in another county may be placed in facilities away from home for the same violation. This lack of consistency creates unfairness within the system and leads to wildly different outcomes. Part of this disparity is due to lack of quality community programming and services in certain jurisdictions.

To ensure that the outcomes serve the best interests of each child, out-of-home placements for children should be limited to repeat offenses, felony crimes against a person, or felonies where the child poses a risk of harm to themselves or the community. Children should not be placed in the custody of the Department of Children’s Services for unruly offenses, or a technical violation of their supervision. Instead, courts handling unruly or delinquent children should be encouraged to assign these matters to family services or other evidence-based interventions that are better suited to address the child’s behavior. Law enforcement should also have discretion to issue a citation rather than take into custody any child who commits an offense that would otherwise be designated a misdemeanor if committed by an adult.

Alternative, community-based programs are not only more effective than out-of-home placements in addressing minor misbehavior, they also save taxpayers money. It costs up to $230,000 a year to house a juvenile in a secure facility, which is 27 times more costly than placing the juvenile on probation. By emphasizing less costly alternatives for most juveniles, Tennessee will have more resources to reinvest in communities where services are scarce.

When detention or out-of-home placement is appropriate, the length of that stay should be no more than is necessary. Research shows that the longer a child is out of his or her home, the greater his or her likelihood is of reoffending. The goal should be to rectify the behavior and return the child to his or her home environment as soon as possible.

By adopting these reforms, Tennessee can join other states that have implemented similar reforms and experienced cost savings coupled with a reduction in the number of youths who re-offend. Tennessee must do more to ensure there is a path to allow these children to turn their lives around and become productive members of society before it is too late.

Bringing these reforms to fruition would not only lead to better outcomes for the children in the system, and thereby create safer communities, but it would also save taxpayers money. The task force concluded that a 36 percent reduction in the number of children in state custody for minor infractions could save taxpayers approximately $36 million over just a five-year period. Thus, these reforms represent a win for all Tennesseans.

Who This Impacts 

Lindsay Holloway was a cheerleader, vice president of her student government association in high school, and had a 4.0 GPA. Yet, Lindsay also struggled with an addiction that seemed all too common among the youth in her small town. She began using meth at the age of 16. By her senior year, she had dropped out of school. She was arrested countless times and was on probation from age 18 to 24. Every time she was arrested, Lindsay was sent to jail, but was never directed towards any treatment or rehabilitation programs. Rather than treat the addiction as the problem, the state was treating Lindsay as the problem.

At 24, Lindsay was arrested and charged with a federal crime of stealing guns in order to buy drugs. She talks of the despair she felt during this time of her life and describes how she had planned to commit suicide the day of her arrest. “The arrest saved my life,” she recalls. Facing up to 10 years without parole, Lindsay made the decision to turn her life around. She entered into the care of a ministry that was attached to the halfway house where she was placed, and it was at this ministry that Lindsay finally received treatment for her addiction. Braden Boucek, now the Beacon Center’s director of litigation, was the prosecutor assigned to Lindsay’s case at the time and recognized the progress Lindsay was making. He was able to arrange a two-year probation, and today, Lindsay celebrated her sixth year of abstinence from drugs. Had Lindsay been initially directed to a treatment program, she explains, she may have avoided committing additional offenses and the years-long delay in her quest to become a productive, contributing member of society.

More Resources

“Advancing Sensible Justice Reforms in Tennessee.” Beacon Center of Tennessee.


Justin Owen is the president & CEO of the Beacon Center of Tennessee. Julie Warren is the Tennessee/Kentucky state director for Right on Crime and serves as a senior fellow at the Beacon Center.