After being expedited, critics suggest that changes are needed in Tennessee’s blended sentencing law

Juveniles aged 16 and above who are charged with first-degree and second-degree murder will now be held and tried as adults, despite state laws prohibiting their incarceration with adult offenders. This new law has been implemented recently.

According to Judge Sheila Calloway of the Davidson County Juvenile Court, the idea of blended sentencing is a positive step forward. However, she believes that the new law that impacts severe juvenile offenders is not practical and may even be unconstitutional.

In an interview with the Tennessee Lookout, Calloway stated that there are several gaps in the statute which they, on behalf of the judges, are trying to work through and determine how to implement the law that has been passed.

Calloway’s main concern is that young suspects may not fully comprehend the trial process or be able to receive a jury trial within the one-year timeframe mandated by the new law. This is due to the significant amount of time required to secure an indictment and adequately prepare for a criminal trial.

Calloway has expressed uncertainty regarding the feasibility of granting a constitutional right to a jury trial “by peers” for a young teenager. This is due to the fact that the majority of juries consist of individuals who are 50 years of age or older.

Last week, Governor Bill Lee signed HB430/SB624 into law, despite his previous reservations towards similar tough-on-crime bills. According to a spokesperson for Lee, he deferred to the General Assembly on the matter, and the law will take effect on January 1, 2025.

Under the law, 14-year-olds who are found guilty of committing grave offenses can receive a maximum sentence of five years in prison or probation once their juvenile sentence runs out. Furthermore, judges in the juvenile court system have the authority to transfer cases of first- and second-degree murder, as well as attempted murder, of 16- and 17-year-olds to adult court.

The House passed a revised version of the bill with the help of its supporters, while the Senate voted in favor of it along party lines. Despite opposition from Chairman Todd Gardenhire, the bill did not go through the Judiciary Committee again due to leadership’s decision.

As the August conference for Tennessee’s juvenile judges approaches, Roberts anticipates an increase in inquiries regarding blended sentencing.

Juveniles who are 16 years and older are mandated by law to be held and prosecuted as adults for first-degree and second-degree murder, despite the state law prohibiting minors from being detained with adults. However, several county governments lack the necessary facilities to accommodate juveniles. In Davidson County, juveniles are held for less than 30 days before their court date.

According to documents, separating at least 30 juveniles could cost the state more than $4.3 million, making the provision quite complex.

I obviously have concerns that I’ve already shared with the logistics of the bill. I think those conversations are going to give rise to some changes we make in January. The question will be: are they substantive changes, or are they minor changes.

Said Sen. Kerry Roberts of Springfield

According to Jasmine Miller, a staff attorney at Youth Law Center, the Senate Judiciary Committee passed the first version of the bill in 2023. However, it faced a setback during a special session on public safety later that year. In 2024, the bill was amended to address constitutional concerns and the lack of a trial. One of the amendments reintroduced an adult trial, but the bill still failed to satisfy its critics.

Miller raised a valid point, stating that with such significant changes, there was no discussion about the logistics of conducting a jury trial or the number of individuals it would impact.

According to her, a few senators expressed their discomfort with the multitude of alterations made to the bill, as well as the fact that it was not going to be reviewed by the Judiciary Committee again and was instead being brought to the Senate floor at the last minute.

Calloway expresses concern about the potential loss of discretion for juvenile judges regarding the fate of offenders after they turn 19 and are no longer under the custody of the Department of Children’s Services.

Juvenile court judges are now authorized to impose probation on offenders under the new law. However, there seems to be some uncertainty regarding the procedure and how the Department of Correction would handle such cases. Calloway expressed her doubts about whether individuals aged 19 in this scenario would be moved to prison or put on probation.

Soft-on-crime individuals can say whatever they want, but the simple fact is that they don’t believe in holding violent juveniles accountable and they are out of step with the Tennesseans.

Moreover, it is imperative for these juvenile detainees to steer clear of any form of wrongdoing or behavior that is deemed hazardous. Furthermore, they are obligated to complete their high school education, pursue higher education or employment, if they are placed under probation. Failure to comply with these requirements may result in imprisonment, which according to Calloway, poses a significant challenge.

She expressed her backing for the notion of granting jurisdiction to juvenile court judges concerning violent youth offenders until the age of 24. However, she highlighted that this legislation contains “numerous shortcomings.”

According to Taylor, she is willing to hear out any concerns, but so far, she hasn’t received any. In fact, during her time in Memphis, the overall sentiment has been supportive, even among the judges.

According to Taylor, the statute maintains the same structure for detaining offenders. Juveniles will remain in DCS facilities until they turn 19 years old, after which they may be held with other adults if a judge deems it necessary for further incarceration.

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