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Tennessee County Takes New Approach to Juvenile Justice

PHOTO: A new pilot program in Davidson County is designed to address underlying problems that can lead to juvenile delinquency and crime, and intervening during kids' earliest encounters with the juvenile justice system. Photo credit: Larry Farr/Morguefile.
PHOTO: A new pilot program in Davidson County is designed to address underlying problems that can lead to juvenile delinquency and crime, and intervening during kids' earliest encounters with the juvenile justice system. Photo credit: Larry Farr/Morguefile.
June 18, 2015

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – One Tennessee county is overhauling the way kids are treated in its juvenile justice system, in the hopes their futures will yield better, more successful results.

Davidson County is changing everything from what children wear when they're in custody, to the job titles and roles of those they encounter as they complete the terms of their punishment. Davidson County Judge Sheila Calloway helped create the new program, and she says it's all about understanding the source a child's problems – so those issues can be addressed.

"We want to know what it is early on, so we can put in the proper services and proper interventions so the child can be successful," she says. "We are attempting to prevent problems from happening early in the life of a child."

A $400,000 grant from the state is enabling the county to create a 12-person assessment team that visits a child's home and school to examine the reasons they ended up in trouble with the law. A report generated by the team will then be used to steer the child, and their caregivers, toward proper support services. At this time, children age 13 and younger are in the pilot program.

Court administrator Kathryn Sinback is working with Calloway to develop the program.

"This is the missing piece," she says. "It takes an effort to really come together, to build rapport with families and make sure we have a system in place that's going to use that information respectfully and responsibly."

Critics of the new program worry it could let kids off too easily. Calloway emphasizes the juveniles are still being sentenced, but the new approach is preventive – designed to help ensure the encounter is a child's last brush with the law.

"It's not that we're being 'soft on crime' at all," says Calloway. "We're getting to the actual heart of the crime. We're getting to the heart of why this child is doing the things they're doing."

Both Sinback and Calloway say they are not aware of any similar programs elsewhere in the country.

According to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, in 2013 – the year with the most recent data available – more than 26,000 juveniles were arrested statewide.

Stephanie Carson, Public News Service - TN