Critics say Tennessee’s blended sentencing law needs changes after expedited passage

Published 4:35 pm Thursday, June 6, 2024

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By Sam Stockard

Tennessee Lookout

Davidson County Juvenile Court Judge Sheila Calloway supports the concept of blended sentencing but contends a new law affecting serious juvenile offenders is unworkable and possibly unconstitutional.

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“There are lots of holes in the statute that I think, on behalf of the judges, we’re working through and trying to figure out how we’re going to implement the statute they passed,” Calloway said Tuesday in an interview with the Tennessee Lookout.

Primarily, Calloway is concerned that juvenile suspects might not understand the concept of a trial much less receive a jury trial within a year of being advised of their right to a trial, as required by the new law, because of the amount of time it takes to get an indictment and prepare for a criminal trial.

Calloway is also uncertain whether a constitutional right to a jury trial “by peers” is possible for a young teen, since most juries have an average age of 50 and older.

Gov. Bill Lee signed HB430/SB624 into law last week even though he was cool toward similar tough-on-crime bills previously. A spokesperson for Lee said he deferred to the General Assembly on the measure, which takes effect Jan. 1, 2025.

The law allows 14-year-olds who commit serious crimes to be given up to five years in prison or probation when their juvenile sentence ends. It also allows juvenile judges to transfer 16- and 17-year-olds to adult court in cases of first- and second-degree murder as well as attempted murder.

The Senate approved a blended sentencing bill in 2023. But it didn’t make it through the House that year or a special session last August on public safety, and different versions of the bill were flying fast and furiously toward the end of the 2024 legislative session, most without the input of juvenile court judges. That left interested people sitting on the sidelines hoping the bill wouldn’t pass.

Backers pushed a significantly amended version to passage in the House, and the Senate approved it along party lines after leadership refused to let it go back through the Judiciary Committee where Chairman Todd Gardenhire opposed it.

Some lawmakers, consequently, are hearing from judges concerned about how the law will work because of the lack of scrutiny, and they want to put together a plan to revamp it when the Legislature reconvenes in January 2025.

“I obviously have concerns that I’ve already shared with the logistics of the bill,” said Republican Sen. Kerry Roberts of Springfield. “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.”

For instance, Roberts argued during floor debate that the age for youths is being redefined until 24, because they would remain under juvenile court jurisdiction if sentenced at age 14 for a second serious offense.

Tennessee’s juvenile judges are set to have a conference in August, and Roberts predicts calls about blended sentencing will ramp up as the session approaches.

The law requires juveniles 16 and older to be held and tried as adults for first-degree and second-degree murder, even though state law prohibits juveniles from being incarcerated with adults. Many county governments don’t have facilities to house juveniles, and Davidson County holds juveniles for less than 30 days before a court date.

Such a provision complicates the measure and could cost the state more than $4.3 million, if at least 30 juveniles are housed separately, documents show.

Jasmine Miller, staff attorney for Youth Law Center, points out the initial version of the bill passed the Senate Judiciary Committee in 2023 but was held up during a fall special session on public safety, then amended in 2024, in part, to resolve constitutional questions and the absence of a trial. An amendment reinserted an adult trial into the equation, but detractors remained unsatisfied with the bill’s practical application.

“In making such large changes, there obviously wasn’t an opportunity to talk about the mechanics of doing a jury trial or how many people it affects?” Miller said.

Some senators were “uncomfortable” with the number of changes made to the bill, along with the fact it wasn’t to be heard in the Judiciary Committee again and went to the Senate floor “at the 11th hour,” she said.

In addition, Calloway is concerned that juvenile judges will lose discretion over what happens to offenders once they turn 19 and are released from the custody of the Department of Children’s Services.

The new law also allows juvenile court judges to order probation for offenders, but confusion surrounds the process and how the Department of Correction would handle those cases. Calloway said she’s not certain whether 19-year-olds in this situation would transfer to prison or be placed on probation.

In addition, these young inmates must avoid committing any other offense or any conduct considered a safety risk. They’re also required to graduate from high school, enroll in a college or get a job, if placed on probation. Otherwise, they could be sentenced to prison, which Calloway calls “problematic.”

In fact, she said she supports the idea of giving juvenile court judges jurisdiction over violent youth offenders until age 24. But she pointed out this law has “too many holes.”

Nevertheless, House Speaker Cameron Sexton, a strong proponent of the legislation, said Tuesday that prosecutors, law enforcement and Tennesseans as a whole support the measure. He noted prosecutors helped draft the legislation amid debate over two years.

“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 Tennesseans. That’s why we’re working on a criminal package next year that may even add strength to this law as well as reforming the bail industry on violent criminals,” Sexton said in a statement.

The bill’s sponsor, Republican Sen. Brent Taylor of Memphis, said Tuesday he had not heard any complaints from Shelby County judges and, in fact, received support from District Attorney Steve Mulroy.

Still, he acknowledged that the Legislature often tweaks bills a year or two after they pass, and he said he would be willing to take another look at the mechanics of blended sentencing.

“I’m open to listening to what the concerns are, but I’ve not heard a thing,” Taylor said. “The only thing I’ve heard down here (in Memphis) is everyone is supportive of it, judges included.”

Taylor said the statute doesn’t change the structure for holding offenders, with juveniles housed in DCS facilities until their 19th birthday and then with other adults if a judge requires additional incarceration.