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Juvenile Detention Oversight Bill Killed By Tennessee Lawmakers

A bill that would strengthen oversight of Tennessee’s juvenile detention centers has failed, despite a concerted push for reform after multiple county-run facilities were found to be locking children alone in cells, ProPublica reports. The bill was introduced in the state legislature in January after a WPLN and ProPublica investigation last year reported that seclusion was used as punishment for minor rule infractions like laughing during meals or talking during class. One facility, the Richard L. Bean Juvenile Service Center in Knoxville, was particularly reliant on seclusion, in violation of state laws and standards that banned the practice as a form of discipline. “If we can’t get behind independent oversight and transparency as a good thing in the juvenile justice system, there will never be meaningful accountability and our system can’t change for the better,” Zoe Jamail of Disability Rights Tennessee said. “So it is frustrating and disappointing.” The oversight bill aimed to give an independent agency the power to require changes at facilities that violate state standards, effectively forcing Tennessee’s Department of Children’s Services to act.

Currently, the ombudsman at that agency, the Tennessee Commission on Children and Youth, responds to family complaints about DCS but doesn’t have enforcement power. Under the bill, if a facility didn’t follow those recommendations, the department would have been required to suspend the site’s license or stop placing kids there until the violations are fixed. It was sponsored by two prominent Republicans and one Democrat, and a version of the legislation had the department’s backing. It wouldn’t have cost the state any money, according to the bill’s fiscal note. Usually in Tennessee, that would be a recipe for a bill to become a law. But the legislation was sent to what is called “summer study,” a maneuver that allows lawmakers to continue working on the legislation but is typically used to effectively kill a bill. Its sponsors and child welfare advocates are baffled as to why. “I can’t think of a reason for not wanting oversight unless there’s something to hide,” Jamail said. After the hearing, Farmer said he was unfamiliar with WPLN and ProPublica’s reporting on the Bean Center that bill sponsors said inspired the legislation. He said he opposed the original legislation because of how much state oversight it introduced, and he criticized the sponsors for not clearly explaining the reasons for the bill.


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