Juvenile crime changes could spark uproar in special session – Tennessee Lookout

Juvenile justice might not have a connection to the shooting deaths at Nashville’s Covenant School, but potential bills could cause a furor next week in the Legislature’s special session — if lawmakers haven’t gotten cold feet already.

Gov. Bill Lee’s official call for the session covers a variety of topics ranging from school safety plans to reports on violent threats. One likely to create contention, though, would allow the transfer of juveniles 16 and older to adult courts for prosecution. It would include the right of appeal for the juvenile and prosecutors. 

Another proposal would limit the circumstances in which juvenile records could be expunged, and one would set up “blended” sentencing for juveniles, a situation in which an underage offender could receive juvenile and adult sentences simultaneously.

Even though Lee included them in his official call, he isn’t pushing measures related to juvenile justice. Instead, those were sought by Republican lawmakers, who had not filed any related bills by Tuesday afternoon.

House Speaker Cameron Sexton is one of the leaders in supporting juvenile transfers to adult court, in addition to blended sentencing, saying “current soft sentencing isn’t working,” according to spokesman Doug Kufner. He noted Sexton agrees with Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland, who has said the city is experiencing a juvenile justice problem.

“We have juveniles committing armed carjackings, robberies and thefts multiple times, and they are out with no bail within hours of their arrest, only to re-offend before law enforcement can get back into their patrol cars. The revolving door is real,” Kufner said on behalf of Sexton.

He pointed out the transfer of juveniles to adult court for crimes such as murder is not automatic and said that needs to change, too.

Lt. Gov. Randy McNally isn’t quite as adamant as Sexton, even though a spokesman said he has “consistently expressed concern” about juvenile crime increases in the state.

“Criminal gangs are known to use juveniles to do serious crimes knowing they will be unlikely to receive any real punishment. Lt. Gov. McNally supports Gov. Lee including this in the call and looks forward to reviewing legislation filed on the subject,” spokesman Adam Kleinheider said.

Yet the path to passage isn’t clear.

Housing juveniles in adult prisons and jails isn’t permitted in Tennessee, even if they’re held separately, and building new facilities is expected to be expensive, likely drawing opposition from budget hawks in the House and Senate. 

The other question is whether the Legislature is prepared to rewrite a large section of its juvenile justice laws in the short time frame of a special session intended to deal mainly with school shootings.

Lee faced criticism last week from proponents of gun-law reform, when his official call for the session contained no provisions for stricter firearms laws after three adults and three 9-year-olds were killed by a 28-year-old former student in the March attack at the small Christian school in Green Hills.

Democrats are urging Lee to back a ban on military-style weapons such as AR-15s, tougher background checks for weapon purchases and a “red-flag” law to keep unstable people from possessing guns. 

None of those are expected to pass the Republican-controlled Legislature, even though 82% of Tennesseans support the governor’s executive order on gun background checks and 75% back a red-flag law for gun possession, according to the Vanderbilt Poll.

Rep. Vincent Dixie, a Nashville Democrat, says proposals such as moving juveniles to adult court are a result of Republicans’ “failed policies.” 

Dixie contends Lee’s permit-less carry law and other lax gun regulations, including one allowing people to leave weapons in vehicles, allow teens more opportunities to steal guns. The numbers of gun thefts from vehicles in Nashville and Memphis over the last decade have skyrocketed.

“We’re punishing teenagers, which nine times out of 10 they’re probably going to be African American. So you’re going to punish people more rather than be preventative,” Dixie said.

House Majority Leader William Lamberth. (Photo: John Partipilo)
House Majority Leader William Lamberth. (Photo: John Partipilo)

House Majority Leader William Lamberth filed bills this week mandating DNA testing on all felony arrests; TennCare coverage for mental health treatment; requiring all schools to set policies for responding to an active shooter situation; allowing orders of protection to be expanded to lifetime orders in cases of aggravated stalking and especially aggravated stalking; requiring law enforcement notification when a mental health facility releases a patient; and specifying that autopsy reports and medical examiner reports on victims of violent crimes are not public records. He also filed what appears to be a place-holder bill for court operations, which would be amended with the full language.

House Republican Caucus spokesperson Jennifer Easton said Tuesday that Lamberth would not be sponsoring bills dealing with juvenile justice.

Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson hasn’t been asked to sponsor any bills related to juvenile justice.

In contrast, Rep. Antonio Parkinson filed bills Tuesday to increase penalties for adults who coerce minors into stealing guns for them and to make an adult who transfers a weapon to a minor responsible for any resulting mass violence or threat of mass violence using that weapon.