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Tennessee General Law Blog

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Is the Juvenile Criminal System Broken?

The current Tennessee juvenile justice system seems to struggle with violent offenders, but what is the best solution to this problem?

Overall, juvenile crime has gone down over the past decade. But serious crimes have increased, prompting some people to claim that the system needs serious reform.

The violent crime spree began in earnest in 2017. That year, teenagers were connected to two killings, one in Cayce Housing Projects and another one in South Nashville. This year, three juveniles between 12 and 16 years old were arrested for a murder that took place in an apparent botched carjacking. Other violent crimes, including possession of a handgun, trafficking in stolen vehicles, and robbery, were at a five-year high. Many of these offenders are juvenile recidivists.

Not everyone thinks locking up youthful offenders is a good idea. “Those who get locked up usually are the ones least likely to graduate,” observed Davidson County Juvenile Judge Sheila Calloway. “The ones that get locked up are the ones that are more likely to end up in the adult system.” So, “putting more services and resources into every child” might be the answer, she concluded.

Some critics, like former juvenile prosecutor Jim Todd, said mandatory release might be an issue. It is illegal to detain uncharged juveniles overnight, so some children do not experience immediate consequences. “You are not burning your hand on the stove,” he said. “You are not learning that the stove is hot at a very, very early age.”

Is Mandatory Release a Good Idea?

In Tennessee, most prisoners must be arraigned within 72 hours. That is not very long to stay in jail. Furthermore, the Eighth Amendment requires reasonable bail in criminal cases. So, all but the most violent offenders are usually entitled to release, and they are entitled to bail terms that they can meet.

There is a problem with changing the mandatory release law. Courts have made it clear that it is illegal to house juvenile and adult defendants in the same area. Local jails would need massive physical upgrades to comply with these requirements. Are Coffee County taxpayers willing to foot the bill for these improvements?

This is not the first time these questions have come up. Plea bargaining replaced criminal trials as the preferred way to dispose of criminal cases beginning in the 1890s. The country was growing rapidly, and taxpayers did not want to pay for the jails, courts, and other infrastructure necessary to keep up with this growth.

Children and Brain Development

The violent juvenile crime epidemic may not be because of weak laws, lax parenting, or any other such thing. The real reason might be biological.

Have you ever noticed that children sometimes chase wayward balls into busy streets? They do not do that to spite their parents. They behave that way because they do not understand such behavior is dangerous.

Most scientists believe the brain does not fully develop until the mid-20s. And, the risk-reward area of the brain is one of the last ones to develop. Kids carjack people for the same reason they chase balls into the street. They do not see the danger. They only see the reward (the car they take or the ball they retrieve).

In court, this lack of brain development is not a defense to the crime itself. Only a mental disease or defect triggers the insanity defense. However, an undeveloped brain may be mitigating evidence during the punishment phase.

Count on Dedicated Attorneys

From both prosecutors and defense attorneys, juvenile crimes require a special touch. For a free consultation with an experienced criminal defense attorney in Manchester, contact Burch, Morrison, & Stewart. We routinely handle matters in Coffee County and nearby jurisdictions.

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