Capitol Hill Week: Senate Judiciary Committee focuses on juvenile justice reform

(NASHVILLE, Tenn.), January 18, 2018 — As the Tennessee Senate returned for the second week of legislative action, attention turned to one of the key issues before lawmakers this year – juvenile justice reform.  The Senate Judiciary Committee heard an overview of a report delivered by the Tennessee Blue Ribbon Task Force on Juvenile Justice from Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville), who co-chaired the group.

The task force was created last year at the request of Governor Bill Haslam, Tennessee Supreme Court Chief Justice Jeff Bivins and other key justice system stakeholders to conduct a comprehensive, data-driven review of Tennessee’s juvenile justice system.  The goal was to develop evidence-based policy recommendations to protect public safety, more effectively hold juvenile offenders accountable, contain costs, and improve outcomes for youth, families and communities.

Presently, there are over 1,100 youth in the custody of the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services for unruly or delinquent offenses. Norris said that, if enacted, policies proposed by the task force are projected to reduce this number 36 percent by 2024 and yield an estimated $36 million in averted state costs over five years.  The Task Force recommends reinvestment of these funds in a continuum of in-home and community-based services that research indicates will reduce recidivism and keep them from moving into a life of adult crime.

“We must really start by keeping them out of the criminal justice system,” said Norris, who told the members that the current juvenile justice system is often a feeder system for adult prisons.  “Great oaks from little acorns grow, and big problems from troubled children can result.”

“The Department of Children’s Services currently spends $230,000 per bed, per year on its most expensive placements,” he added. “That’s a lot of money.  If those funds could be reprogrammed and averted to a safer and smarter system with a minimal upfront investment, we can really reprogram the system to get better results.”

Youth adjudicated on misdemeanor offenses, unruly offenses and technical violations make up nearly half of youth in costly out-of-home placements.  They are also staying in custody longer, especially in rural areas of the state which lack adequate community-based resources that more effectively hold youth accountable.

Norris also pointed out the task force’s findings on racial disparity.  Across all stages of the juvenile justice system, it was found that on top of regional inconsistency, African American youth have a greater representation at each stage when compared to the general youth population.  African American youth make up 34 percent of the youth population included in the analysis; however, they account for 59 percent of all delinquent petitions, 66 percent of adjudications, and 74 percent of transfer cases.

“We’re worried about inconsistencies across the state, whether they are racial, or rural to urban, resulting in what some of us have called justice by geography,” added Norris.  “You’d like to think that our youth are being treated consistently and fairly across the board.”

“We’re also worried about delinquents being thrown in with more serious criminal offenders, diverting our attention from the serious criminal offenders and the rehabilitation of the not serious offenders.”

In addition, the task force found that data collection and information sharing on juvenile offenders is insufficient and inconsistent across the state.  Without a means to better track dispositions, the state lacks the ability to measure the effectiveness of system processes and certain interventions or treatments of the youth.  It also limits the information available to probation officers, treatment providers, and courts about individual youth.

Norris said key recommendations of the task force are being drafted for inclusion in Governor Bill Haslam’s legislative package which he will deliver to lawmakers later this month.

 

Check-up on Tennessee’s higher education shows continued student progress

 

Tennessee Higher Education Commission (THEC) Executive Director Mike Krause appeared before the Senate Education Committee this week to report on the state of higher education.  The progress check-up showed Tennessee students are leading the nation in tapping into federal student aid.  At a time when the rest of the nation is wondering what to do about mounting student debt, the report showed the number of students taking out loans in Tennessee has decreased by 17 percent.

The Tennessee Promise Scholarship, which is now a model nationwide, is key to this success.  The program was the first in the nation to offer graduating high school seniors two years tuition-free at a community or technical college.  It has helped catapult the “college going rate” from 53.8 percent in 2007 to 62 percent today.  Krause said it is not only getting them in the door, but keeping them there as the retention rate from Fall 2015- Spring 2016 is at 80.6 percent.

The success rate in higher education is also a result of work done at the K-12 grade level in better preparing students to enter college.  In addition to an increase in the state’s average ACT score to 20.1, the number of students requiring remediation has dropped from 76.8 percent to 62.4 percent since 2011.  Krause said the most noticeable change has been the decrease from 74 percent to 53 percent in the number of students needing remedial math.  He attributed this improvement to more rigorous K-12 standards and the Seamless Alignment and Integrated Learning Support (SAILS) program. The program targets students that have not achieved college readiness benchmarks by introducing college developmental curriculum in the high school senior year.

“This is excellent news,” said Senate Education Committee Chairman Dolores Gresham.  “Tennessee is moving forward in all levels of education which is not only good for our students and their families, but for the state as a whole.”

On higher education challenges, Krause expressed concern about an inequality in educational attainment between rural and urban counties. “Though our state has offered great opportunity to enter a technical college, a community college, or a university, that opportunity really is not distributed equally.”

Krause highlighted how THEC’s Economic and Community Development Program was working on reaching 19 distressed counties to achieve a “front door presence.” THEC’s outreach staff has mobilized to work with mayors and other local economic development officials in these counties to bring all the opportunities the state can offer to help get them out of the “distressed” category. Krause expressed optimism in the progress this outreach team has made in the early stages in getting students enrolled.

 

State election officials work to keep Tennessee’s voting system secure

 

Although Tennessee’s voting system is secure, election officials are working tirelessly to guard against cyber-attacks or other potential breaches according to Secretary of State Tre Hargett and State Election Coordinator Mark Goins who appeared before the Senate State and Local Government Committee this week.  The officials, along with the Department of State’s technology specialists, outlined measures they have taken to ensure the integrity of elections in Tennessee.

Election security has been in the news nationwide since the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) notified 21 states last fall that Russia hackers might have attempted to penetrate their election systems.  Tennessee was not one of the states notified of such an attempt.  Nonetheless, state election officials have worked with DHS and other federal and state government agencies to ensure that Tennessee’s voting system is protected.  DHS has declared electoral systems as critical infrastructure, a designation which puts it in the same category as the power grid or emergency services, in order to boost their cyber defenses.

Secretary Hargett said, that like other government agencies, they are constantly a target of email spammers and “phishers” who are looking to gain secure information.  The Secretary of State’s office has prioritized cybersecurity in order to stay ahead of such attempts.  This includes extending training to all Tennessee election officials to help prevent potential breaches.

Goins explained that penetrating elections in Tennessee would be especially difficult due to the fact that voting machines in the state are air gapped.  This means they are not connected to the internet, thus making Tennessee’s voting system less susceptible to being manipulated remotely.  He said that his main concern is the hacking of election night results which could undermine voter confidence.  The Secretary of State’s office posts election night results as they are counted by local election officials.

“The integrity of our voting system is vital to our democracy,” said State and Local Government Committee Chairman Ken Yager.  “We must protect it.  I appreciate the diligence of Secretary Hargett and Coordinator Goins to ensure that we have stronger measures in place to guard against cyber-attacks.”

 

Lt. Gov. Randy McNally appoints Sen. Haile as Speaker Pro Tempore and Sen. Bowling as Deputy Speaker

 

Lt. Governor Randy McNally (R-Oak Ridge) announced on Thursday the appointment of Senator Ferrell Haile (R-Gallatin) as Speaker Pro Tempore of the Senate. Haile replaces Jim Tracy who resigned late last year to accept a presidential appointment.

Senator Janice Bowling (R-Tullahoma) will replace Haile in the position of Deputy Speaker.

“Ferrell Haile is the epitome of a servant leader. An extremely effective legislator, Senator Haile never seeks credit for his accomplishments and is quick to praise others,” stated McNally. “He is focused, organized and driven for the purpose of doing good for his constituents, the Senate and the state of Tennessee.”

“Ferrell has served the Senate well as Deputy Speaker and his performance as Vice Chair of the Health and Welfare Committee has been nothing short of exemplary. His talents and skills are a natural fit for this position. I am proud to appoint him,” McNally concluded.

The Speaker Pro Tempore is a key leadership role in the General Assembly, in terms of both operations and policy. Most notably, the Speaker Pro Tempore presides over the state Senate in the absence of the Speaker of the Senate.

The Deputy Speaker also plays a key role in leadership advising the Speaker and the Senate on matters of policy and operations.

“Janice Bowling is a strong, valuable member of our caucus,” said McNally. “She is an excellent legislator who works tirelessly on behalf of her constituents. I am looking forward to her advice and counsel in this new role. She will be an outstanding Deputy Speaker.”

 

Issues in Brief

 

Teacher Preparation Programs — Tennessee Higher Education Commission (THEC) Executive Director Mike Krause told lawmakers on the Senate Education Committee this week that nearly half of all teacher preparation programs in the state’s colleges and universities are in the two lowest performance categories for effectiveness.  Troubling trends include: underperformance of academic standards for teacher candidates (ACT score below 21), teacher candidates not receiving high-need licensure endorsements, lack of diversity in teacher candidate pool, and low Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System (TVAAS) performance of recent graduates.  Krause said THEC will be taking aggressive action to correct these issues.  The General Assembly is expected to take up legislation this year to improve the programs.

Pill Take Back Program — Tennessee’s Household Pill Take Back Program resulted in the disposal of 162,988 pounds of pills according to TBI Special Agent Tommy Farmer who appeared before the Senate Finance Committee’s Appropriation Subcommittee on Wednesday.  Farmer said a total of 237 collection bins are available in Tennessee’s 95 counties.  The program provides a way for unused prescription drugs to be safely disposed.  This helps prevent prescription and over-the-counter medications from getting into the hands of children and into the waterways. The program also makes sure that the pills are disposed of in a safe, environmentally-friendly manner.

Meth Labs — The Tennessee Dangerous Drugs Task Force helped in the seizure of 211 meth labs in Tennessee last year.  The meth seized amounted to 3,040 pounds of hazardous waste transported for disposal.  The occurrence of meth labs seizures has been decreasing for several years in Tennessee. They reached their peak in February of 2013 when they were being reported at a rate of seven a day. Since passage of the I Hate Meth Act of 2013, meth labs have decreased to an average of one every 48 hours.

Student Veterans — Retired Lt. Gen. Keith Huber spoke to the Tennessee Senate Education Committee this week about his work in helping Middle Tennessee State University (MTSU) better serve their student veterans. Lt. Gen. Huber said Tennessee is seeing great progress in enrolling and supporting veterans in higher education, but still has room for growth in providing funding and facilities, including veteran’s centers on the state’s college campuses.  MTSU President Sidney McPhee and Lt. Gen. Huber worked together to design, build, equip, and staff the 3,200 sq. ft. Charlie and Hazel Daniels Veterans and Military Families Center on that campus.  It is the only university veteran’s center in the nation to have two full-time Veteran Affairs -funded employees. At the center, there is an employer-search agent that works with student veterans to help find them internships and careers after graduation. The number of GI Bill users at Tennessee institutions has increased 116% from 5,024 in 2007 to 10,852 in 2017, and there are 22 VETS Program certified higher education institutions in the state.  An institution receiving VETS Campus certification not only prioritizes outreach to veterans, but successfully delivers the services necessary to create a supportive environment where student veterans can prosper while pursuing their education.

Senate Finance Committee hears report regarding TBI’s financial operations — The Senate Finance, Ways and Means Committee heard testimony this week from the Tennessee Comptroller’s Office regarding their recent special report examining certain financial operations of the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (TBI).  The special report was initiated as part of the 2017 Appropriations Act to ensure that the agency’s fiscal practices are working in the most efficient and effective manner. The Comptroller’s Office concluded that TBI and the Department of Finance and Administration should commit to improve communication during the budget process. On the agency’s airplane, the Comptroller’s office found that more cost-effective measures could have been used even though procurement policies were followed. Additionally, the Comptroller’s Office researched the history of TBI and performed an analysis of TBI’s independence. TBI is an operationally independent cabinet-level agency that does not clearly belong to a single branch of government.

 

 

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