Electing progressive leaders for a stronger community


Good Government in Tennessee – Education in the Juvenile Justice System

For Tennessee progressives in a red state, it can be difficult to find examples of good government with bipartisan support that positively impacts our fellow Tennesseeans, particularly in the education space as we saw this week with the V-word. This month, we look at the intersection of education and the juvenile justice system, a system that is supposed to provide effective prevention/intervention services for high-risk youth and treatment/training for delinquent youth so that they can move on to healthy, productive lives. Juvenile justice reform here in Shelby County has been – and will continue to be – the center of several office holders’ platforms because of the grave state of the current juvenile court system, which was so egregious that the Department of Justice had to come in and oversee the system in 2012. Fortunately for Tennesseeans, the fight for juvenile justice reform is occurring today from the City Council level all the way to the Governor’s mansion. One of those steps forward is ensuring incarcerated youths get access to education every day and that this is standardized in all juvenile detention centers across Tennessee.

Photo taken from  Knoxville News Sentinel

Photo taken from Knoxville News Sentinel

Who is championing the fight for education in the juvenile justice system? When first-time candidate, Katrina Robinson, handily won the Tennessee Senate District 33 seat over the long-time incumbent last November, we knew she was destined for greatness. As a member of the 111th Tennessee General Assembly, freshman Senator Robinson hit the Senate floor running in January 2019, with 34 bills sponsored and 46 bills co-sponsored to date. Co-sponsored by Senator Raumesh Akbari (District 31), SB 0062 requires the Department of Education to develop rules, to be adopted by the state board of education, that include procedures for providing instruction to students incarcerated in juvenile detention centers for a minimum of four hours each instructional day. This bill is now headed to the Governor’s desk. This is a positive step for juvenile justice reform, but we now need to push for quality education that includes adequate resources like books, classrooms, more qualified teachers, and special education.

A few Questions….

What is the history of juvenile justice in Tennessee? In 1988, the Tennessee Commission on Children and Youth (TCCY) was created to implement the provisions of the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act of 1974, distribute the grant funds received through that act, and act as an advisory group to administer those funds. In 1989, the Department of Youth Development (DYD) was created to administer all juvenile correctional programs and youth centers in Tennessee. All juvenile programs were then transferred to the DYD from the Department of Correction. In 1994, a plan to coordinate funding, services, and resources of all state child custody programs was formalized as the Children’s Plan under the Office of Children’s Services Administration within the Department of Finance and Administration (which was then transferred to the Department of Health in 1995). In 1996, the Department of Children’s Services (DCS) was created to coordinate all functions of juvenile justice and child welfare under one state office. In 2006, the Division of Juvenile Justice was formed within DCS to serve all children who are adjudicated delinquent.

How is the juvenile justice system organized in Tennessee? The juvenile justice system falls within the purview of the TN Department of Children’s Services. A deputy commissioner and executive director oversee the activities of the three grand regions: West Grand, Middle Grand, and East Grand. Each grand region has a director, and that director oversees the program coordinator activities of 8 sub-regions: Davidson/Shelby County and Northwest/Southwest (West Grand); Upper Cumberland, Mid-Cumberland, and South Central (Middle Grand); and East/Tennessee Valley, Knox/Smoky Mountain, and Northeast (East Grand).

In Tennessee, there are 98 juvenile courts with 109 judges and 45 magistrates. Each county has at least one juvenile court and administers the court to reflect the needs and preferences of the community (i.e., a non-unified court system). So while each court does their best to follow the Tennessee Rules of Juvenile Procedure guidelines, the courts vary widely when it comes to court size, case management procedures, and court administrative practices.

Are all incarcerated youth in Tennessee getting an education? There are over 1000 youths in DCS custody across 25 juvenile detention centers/temporary holding facilities and 3 youth development centers with insufficient educational opportunities. The average length of stay for incarcerated youth is 3-12 months, so with no standard rules, leadership, or accountability regarding the education of these incarcerated youth, they fall farther behind and find it even more difficult to integrate back into their home schools. How do we ensure these youth – who have endured hardships that most of us cannot imagine – get a quality education and the opportunity for a better life?

As progressives, our motto has been Opportunity for All. I am proud that we have state legislators who are not just talking the talk – they are walking the walk!

Written by Racquel Collins


Robert Donati