September 6, 2023


Youth Law Center and Partner Organizations in Tennessee Achieve Legislative Victories for Juvenile Justice Against All Odds

“When we first started advocating against punitive juvenile justice legislation in Tennessee, we were told that these bills would be impossible to stop, due to the power of the legislators behind them. We have now done the impossible twice; the power of Tennesseans united for justice should never be underestimated. Our state is home to a dynamic advocacy community that can and will bridge political divides to protect youth and families from the harms of mass incarceration.”

-Jasmine Miller (pictured at left), Staff Attorney (& Lifelong Tennessean), Youth Law Center.








Youth Law Center led a Herculean effort to stop legislators from ramming through harmful youth justice bills during a special legislative session in Tennessee. The purpose of the special legislative session was originally announced as a response to the tragic deaths of children, teachers, and staff in a mass shooting at the Covenant School in Nashville, and advocates were surprised to see bills rewriting the state’s juvenile justice system on the table, while common sense gun safety reforms were not.

With barely two weeks notice given that these juvenile justice issues would be debated (and only three days notice of the actual legislation), Youth Law Center and partner organizations across the state sprung into action, educating legislators, stakeholders, media, and the public on why the proposed legislation was too complex to rush through in only a few days, and why it would be counterproductive to the goals of rehabilitating youth and improving public safety.

Youth Law Center, along with representatives from the criminal defense bar, Disability Rights Tennessee, and the Raphah Institute, testified before the legislature for hours on topics as varied as constitutional due process, youth crime data, solitary confinement, alternatives to incarceration, restorative justice, impacts on youth with disabilities and survivors of commercial sexual exploitation, and more.

The stakes of the fight were high–TN is one of a few states that does not have any provisions requiring automatic transfer of juveniles to adult court. Several of the bills introduced sought to create a new mandatory transfer provision for large categories of youth, which would have resulted in more youth being held in adult jails and prisons. Another bill, this one backed by the TN Speaker of the House, was even more egregious. It required young children to receive longer sentences than adults for the same offense, and automatic mandatory time served in an adult prison for previous serious youthful offenders who did not get a job after high school, even if they had enrolled in college after completing high school. Advocacy from Youth Law Center and partners forced amendments on that bill, and eventually caused it to be dropped altogether; no harmful juvenile justice bills passed in the special session.

This was a significant victory against long odds, but the fight is not over yet. These harmful bills will be back, in some form, in January 2024. The Youth Law Center will be back, too.