What is juvenile court?

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Hopefully most people reading this article have not had to appear in juvenile court concerning an issue with a child. If you have then you know that juvenile court is much different than any other court proceeding. The public really doesn’t know much about juvenile court because by law the records of the proceedings are kept under seal. There are basically three different kinds of cases that come into juvenile court. We have what are commonly called dependent and neglect cases that are usually filed by the Department of Children’s services when a child has been neglected or abused by a parent or custodian. Also, most people are familiar with a paternity petition. I will talk about those kinds of proceedings in another article. The types of cases I will discuss today are those cases where a juvenile has been charged with committing an offense. These are called juvenile justice cases, or “JJ.” There are two different kinds of offenses for juveniles, delinquent act violations and status offenses. Status offenses are those acts that are only an offense because of the child’s status as a minor, such as curfew, possession of a tobacco product, and truancy. Delinquency cases are those acts that would be a crime if the offender were an adult, such as theft, assault, DUI, robbery, and many others.

These proceedings are handled much like an adult criminal case in that the State of Tennessee, the district attorney’s office, must prove that the juvenile committed the alleged offense. If the state presents sufficient evidence to prove the juvenile committed the offense, then it’s up to me to determine what kind of punishment or corrective action is necessary. My options are very limited on what to do with a juvenile offender. Federal law prohibits juvenile offenders from being placed in jail with other adult inmates. Although I have fought hard to obtain funds to build a juvenile detention facility here by searching for grants and other things, we currently do not have any means of housing our juvenile offenders. To place the child in detention elsewhere cost our county about $200.00 per day. Therefore, this option is used sparingly.

The most common scenario for a juvenile offender is to be placed on probation, perform community service, and pay fines, costs, and restitution. There are three different levels of probation, county, state, and intensive. As you might imagine, the rules, requirements, conditions, and restrictions get more strenuous and severe as you go from one level of probation to the next. If probation does not work, then the last choice is to place the juvenile in a detention facility or in the custody of the Department of Children Services. Fortunately, in our county we have two great juvenile probation officers, Cindy Marlow and Pam West. Cindy is my youth service and county probation officer and Pam is the intensive probation officer. Cindy and Pam really care about their kids and many times will go above the call of duty to help insure the safety and well-being of these young people.

Over the past few years we have implemented many new programs in hopes of deterring juvenile delinquency and to provide juveniles with proper guidance and correction. In an effort to provide a mentor to each child, I order every juvenile offender on probation to attend a youth program at a church of their choosing. We have implemented a Drive Alive program. In this program juvenile traffic offenders are ordered to plan their funeral. Robert Shackelford has been great with assisting the court in this regard. We drug screen juveniles as long as necessary to keep children with drug or alcohol problems from re-offending. Each child on probation must attend Selmer First Baptist Church’s Judgment House. And, we will start a program in July with Tommy Wilson providing inspirational, mentoring, and drug and alcohol type meetings every month with all juveniles on probation.

Juvenile court is a love/hate relationship for me. I love when I can help a child and family through a difficult situation or provide needed discipline for a child going in the wrong direction. Like with my own children, sometimes this must be done through punishment and tough love. I hate those cases when nothing seems to help and I am forced to send the child to juvenile detention or DCS custody, or terminate a parent’s rights. Those are heart wrenching decisions and ones that I hope will never come again.

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