Reforming Nashville’s juvenile justice system

William T. Robinson, Jr.

Lately the juvenile justice system in Davidson Country has been under unyielding scrutiny. It is clearly apparent that the system is broken. We have been visited with a growing number of youth committing felonies, e.g., anything from aggravated assaults, car jacking and murders. However, we are being told crimes in generally, especially misdemeanors among youths, are down. But with the recent escape of serious juvenile offenders from the Davidson County Detention Center, the community demands answers and are adamant about bringing about effective changes.

When questioned, many citizens are vocal about not feeling safe and protected in their respective neighborhoods and feel seriously heinous juvenile crimes are way too high. Citizens’ concerns are centered on whether enough is being done to safeguard our neighborhoods regarding rehabilitating youth found guilty of misdemeanors and felonies. Questions are arising as to whether the Juvenile Justice system is too lenient with repeat offenders. Do our treatment of repeat offenders only make them more seasoned criminals?

Many within the criminal justice system are pointing fingers and acknowledging deficiencies in the system, e.g., poor management, inadequate and under trained employees and excessive management caseloads. Some in the administration are claiming their hands are tied and that they are working within the guidelines of the present laws. They are quick to admit some laws allow repeat offenders to literally be given slaps on the wrists for some criminal acts. Therefore, it should be easy to understand why some young violators aren’t deterred or truly feel the consequences for their heinous criminal offenses.

In fact, some veteran offenders are quick to say that their recidivism is attributed to lack of severe consequences for their offenses. They are comfortable being incarcerated. You find many repeat offenders quite adept at educating younger offenders about being better criminals—even helping them get specific lawyers who are better at presenting their case to the Juvenile Court Judge. Sad as it may be, it becomes not about being remorseful or stopping their criminal behaviors—but about being more careful in not getting caught in their next criminal endeavor.

Make no mistake, some of these seasoned repeaters are quite knowledgeable about the ‘in or outs’ or loopholes in the law. So, there are two questions. Is the system too easy on repeaters? Or should we be harder on first time offenders and revisiting repeaters, especially when considering felonies? The argument favoring being lenient is that when you are too punitive and hard on young offenders you can make them cold and bitter, thus enabling them to be more harden criminals. As the saying goes, “Treat a person like a criminal, and they are more apt to act like a criminal.”

The second argument comes from those who feel the system should be harder on first timers as well as repeat offenders, threatening them with dire consequences that would deter them from ever wanting to come back. But some feel incarceration is not meant to punish the offender but to rehabilitate the person. If that is the case, we are failing miserably. We must be more innovative in coming up with more productive and successful ways to bring about favorable outcomes. But take in mind that when the offender is not remorseful for their participation in a heinous felony, more harsh consequences are needed.  Remember it should also be about protecting and keeping the public safe when possible.

One of the factors contributing to horrific crimes by our youth may be the lack of funds to provide proper resources needed to rehabilitate habitual wayward juveniles. Perhaps we need to change the laws offering these offenders an easy way out. Truly, we have enough educated, brilliant minds to come up with some realistic alternatives that can prove effective.

We must be cognizant that there is a growing number of people who honestly feel the Juvenile Justice System is set up to fail African American youth. They believe that providing jobs for those working in some capacity in the juvenile court system takes top precedence. Many of these same people are often quick to claim statements about saving all children are only unrealistic sound bites usedto pacify the public.

It is unrealistic to think we can save everyone, especially some of the older, incorrigible offenders who personally tell you they don’t care and don’t want any help. But we can work with those who profess they want help by offering them mentors to monitor, guide, and act as role models in showing the way by example. Some groups offer these services (especially as mentors) but we need more volunteers, e.g., churches, fraternities, sororities, and social groups. Being put under the tutelage of one of these groups should be mandatory for first time offenders as well as felonious offenders.

Talking about the problem and pointing fingers is not enough. We must all invest in working with these young offenders, offering education, guidance, interventions and incentives to aid their progress. We must change some of the laws that may hinder justice, especially those allowing those who have committed serious felonies to go home under the supervision of parents and not being held indefinitely.  Remember, it is not only about young offenders. It is also about keeping the community safe.

Many people believe that everyone makes mistakes and are entitled to a second chance. But when given a second or multiple chances, and the person doesn’t take advantage of the help offered, we must do what we must (harder consequences) to protect our communities.