Opinion: Juvenile Justice Task Force wraps up

Rep. Mike Sparks of Tennessee’s 49th District

Rep. Mike Sparks, the Murfreesboro Post, January 24, 2017

Tennessee has expelled more black students than any other Southern state and it ranks 9th worst in the nation for “disconnected youth” – youths who are between the ages of 16 and 24 who are not attending school or employed. Sadly, our state ranks 38th overall in children’s welfare, according to the Annie E. Casey Foundation. Those were just a few of the findings of Tennessee Juvenile Justice Realignment Task Force, which has met since August.

Last week the task force completed its mission of discussing reforms and seeking solutions within our juvenile justice system. The task force discussed a myriad of issues ranging from previously approved tentative recommendations to tackle juvenile justice from various angles. The task force will be supporting legislation to change juvenile sexting laws, which would prohibit both sending and receiving explicit images, adopt measures to prohibit teenagers from being held in detention for minor offenses as part of an effort to improve our juvenile justice system, potentially removing oversight of delinquent youth from the Department of Children’s Services, make recommendations to the legislature about how the state should treat the approximately 1,235 delinquent youth overseen by DCS without endangering public safety and more.

I personally want to thank House Speaker Beth Harwell for appointing me to serve on this important committee. The Task Force is a bipartisan effort led by Republican Senator Mark Norris and Democrat Representative Karen Camper, both from Shelby County, Tennessee, Senator Douglas Overby from Maryville, and includes representatives from the juvenile courts, DCS, mental health professionals and academics.

Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris who chairs the task force, noted that while our state has made progress in decreasing the number of incarcerated youth, the state is lagging behind in other ways. “As I’ve said before, that is not okay with me,” Norris said. “This task force has an opportunity to make a marked change in those outcomes for our youth.”

Tennessee schools expelled the highest number of African-American students among 13 Southeast states. Not only was the state’s truancy problem one area that deserves much needed focus, but the $110,000 per cost of incarcerating a juvenile astonished me. Tennessee has managed to keep cost lower compared to other states such as New York’s rate of $350,000, the highest in the nation.

What is truancy?

  • Any unexcused absence from school is considered truancy, but states enact their own school attendance laws. State law determines 1) the age at which a child is required to begin attending school, 2) the age at which a child may legally drop out of school, and 3) the number of unexcused absences at which a student is considered legally truant.
  • Truancy is a status offence – an act that is a crime due to the young age of the actor, but would not be illegal for someone older. The other most common status offences are running away from home, alcohol use, curfew violations and ungovernability.

Ironically, I am writing this article on Sunday, Jan. 15, which was Martin Luther King‘s birthday. The holiday was signed into law in January 1983 by President Ronald Reagan. The holiday is a celebration of Dr. King’s immeasurable contribution to the United States, and to humankind. Two of my favorite quotes are from Dr. King:

“The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy. The true neighbor will risk his position, his prestige, and even his life for the welfare of others,” and “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”

These issues facing our youth should matter, but there is too much silence today. I often use the word “disconnect” in regards to the many issues our great state faces. These issues, sadly do not have lobbyists at the Tennessee State Capitol. These are issues that do not seem to get much focus. Behind these issues are people who way too often fall through the cracks. During the past six months the Juvenile Justice Realignment Task Force held committee meetings I asked, “Is there anyone from the Tennessee Teachers Union, NAACP, Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents, Tennessee School Boards Association present today?” Sadly, they were all nowhere to be found. These groups who have lobbyists and are paid generous salaries by the taxpayers and their members should be involved, yet they are ‘silent about these things that should matter.’ If you are as concerned as I am with these issues please contact me with your ideas and solutions as we move forward in the Tennessee General Assembly.

Rep. Mike Sparks serves the 49th House District, which includes areas of Smyrna, La Vergne, Almaville and North Murfreesboro. Feel free to contact Mike at Rep.Mike.Sparks@Capitol.tn.gov or call his office at (615) 741-6829.

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