House and Senate send governor ‘significantly watered down’ juvenile justice reform (updated)

Gov. Bill Haslam’s “Juvenile Justice Reform Act of 2018” has been approved by both the House and Senate after multiple revisions that Senate Democratic Caucus Chairman Jeff Yarbro said on the Senate floor left it “significantly watered down” and perhaps not even deserving its title. Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris basically agreed, saying Yarbro’s comments were “well taken” – but both also agreed the measure is at least a “small step” in the right direction.

The bill (HB2271) passed the House, after revisions, 98-1. The Senate vote was 27-0. The House balked at going along with a Senate amendment on Wednesday, however, holding up final passage until late in the day — when the Senate backed off the earlier amendment.

As introduced, the Haslam bill – touted as one of his legislative priorities of the year and generally tracking recommendations made by two task force studies over the past two years – included new limits on the time a juvenile could be placed in state custody for “unruly” offenses that would not be a crime for an adult – skipping school, for example, or consuming alcoholic beverages. Most of those provisions were scrapped.

“The status quo won on this one,” said Yarbro.

Norris, who said sponsoring the bill has been “a tough slough,” told colleagues the deletions were caused by complaints from juvenile court judges who disliked any reduction or limitations on their discretion in handling a given case. Individual judges, he said, would pick up the phone and call their local legislators to criticize the provisions.

The primary improvement to current law under the final version, Norris said, is a provision authorizing expansion of treatment programs in areas that now lack them – generally rural counties. Currently, judges in urban areas typically send juvenile offenders to treatment programs rather than into custody – but not in areas with no programs. Critics have described the system now as “justice by geography.” The state budget for the coming year, as approved by the House and Senate, includes the governor’s request for $4.5 million in state funding to pay for treatment programs in areas that now lack them.

Final approval was postponed until Wednesday by addition of a Senate amendment – Norris assured fellow senators that the Council of Juvenile Court Judges had approved it – that declares “children alleged to be unruly shall not be detained for more than twenty-four (24) hours” in state custody for violating a previous court order. In House, Rep. Jason Zachary (R-Knoxville) objected to the Senate amendment and the House backed him — sending the bill back to the Senate again, where it was reconsidered and withdrawn.

Note: A Tennessean article describing the watering down process while it was underway is HERE.

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