When the governor announced the call for the extraordinary session on public safety, advocates and juvenile justice stakeholders were shocked to see only one item specifically related to guns, while 4 out of the 18 items listed were focused on juvenile courts, including expanding transfer to adult court, limiting expungements, and introducing a new blended sentencing scheme. When pressed on why, Republican leadership has deflected, saying that youth are responsible for a lot of crime. But their numbers simply don’t add up.
Legislators claim over and over again that youth in Shelby County are more dangerous than ever, despite steady annual declines in youth arrests, and despite the fact that Shelby County’s rate of juvenile court referrals is lower than the state average. There is no data source that shows that youth are primarily responsible for Tennessee’s increase in gun violence–in fact, the data suggests that youth crime is unrelated.
Over the past decade, crimes committed by youth in Tennessee have fallen by over 50%, for both serious and lesser offenses. Yet according to the Sycamore Institute, firearm related deaths in Tennessee have been steadily increasing for the past decade, and the Tennessee Department of Health’s 2023 Child Fatality Annual Report shows that firearms are the leading cause of death for children aged 0-17. This data shows us that youth are not the problem – widespread and unregulated access to guns is the problem.
The Sentencing Project, a national nonpartisan think tank, analyzed over a decade of Tennessee Bureau of Investigation data, and found that the youth arrest rate has fallen 23% more than the adult arrest rate since 2011. They concluded that ”the data suggest that the juvenile system is more effective in reducing offending and arrests than the adult criminal justice system. Proposals to move youth into the adult system are likely to increase offending.”
Youth crime is down, and the data suggests that the juvenile justice system is more effective at reducing crime than the adult criminal justice system. So why are our elected representatives holding closed-door meetings to push more young people into the adult system instead of answering our direct calls to take action on gun violence?
Source: Tennessee Commission on Children and Youth, via the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Kids Count Data Center
The most extraordinary parts of this special session are its lack of transparency and scapegoating of Black youth in Shelby County. Make no mistake, we absolutely need to make improvements to continue supporting youth and families impacted by the juvenile justice system, expand prevention services, and keep our communities safe. But the positive changes we want to see will not come from a session in which legislators are using our young people as talking points to mask their continued refusal to respond to calls for common sense gun reform.
No matter what happens during this special session, let’s make sure the legislature knows that we want and need common sense gun legislation to keep our children and communities safe. You can show your support by signing the petition launched by youth organizers in our community from the MICAH Youth Council: bit.ly/EndGunViolenceTN. It’s time for our legislators to realize that youth are not the problem—they’re leading the way in creating the solutions.