August 17, 2023


Youth Law Center Stands Against Harmful Efforts to Incarcerate Youth in Adult Facilities

Many across the nation were captivated by the expulsion hearings of the Tennessee Three, but few would have anticipated that the ongoing political battles in the state would choose youth in the juvenile justice system as the next target. Youth Law Center staff have continued to work on the ground in Tennessee to ensure that youth in the juvenile justice system are not casualties in the struggle for greater government accountability and transparency. The following is our statement on the Governor’s call for a special session on public safety, which was originally pitched as an opportunity to pass common sense gun control legislation in the wake of the 6 tragic deaths at the Covenant School, but has turned into a session on increasing transfer to adult court and other youth justice issues.

As advocates for youth in the youth justice system, we are disturbed to see the Governor and legislature propose increasing youth incarceration as a response to the tragedy at The Covenant School, a tragedy that had nothing to do with the youth justice system. According to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (TBI), youth crime in Tennessee has decreased by over 50% since 2013; it defies logic to respond to a dramatic decrease in youth crime by transferring more 16-year-olds to dangerous adult prisons and jails where they will be denied education and mental health care and be at increased risk of abuse. Compared with those held in juvenile detention centers, youth held in adult jails are five times more likely to be victims of attempted sexual attacks or rape, eight times more likely to commit suicide, twice as likely to be beaten by staff, and 50% more likely to be attacked with a weapon.

The national estimate shows that around 70% of youth embroiled in the juvenile justice system have a disability and/or mental health diagnosis. Research has also repeatedly shown that transferring youth to the adult criminal justice system makes them more, not less, likely to commit crimes in the future. In fact, almost 90% of youth in custody of the Department of Children’s Services (DCS) on the juvenile justice side have had prior contact with DCS on the child welfare side, making juvenile court judges more familiar with, and thus better situated to assess, this population of youth. In recognition of this fact, both Democratic and Republican-run states have worked to decrease transfer to adult courts over the past 20 years, over which period the rates of youth crime in the United States have continued to drop. Using the special session to criminalize young people, rather than expand services, is deeply problematic, especially given that youth have been at the forefront of calling for meaningful solutions to school shootings.