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Memphis community leaders express concerns in trying juveniles as adults

According to the National Juvenile Justice Network, more than 200,000 youth are tried, sentenced, or incarcerated as adults each year in the United States.

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — With the growing number of crimes committed by youth, many wonder what can be done once a juvenile enters the justice system. Depending on the crime, some are tried as adults. 

We spoke with Shelby County advocates working to ensure fair and safe laws for juveniles who commit crimes.

According to the National Juvenile Justice Network, more than 200,000 youth are tried, sentenced, or incarcerated as adults each year in the United States. We sat down with the Countywide Juvenile Justice Consortium (CJJC). They are a community outreach program tracking the progress of juvenile court in Memphis and Shelby County.

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When it comes to cases where juveniles are tried as adults, it is sometime a question punishment versus rehabilitation. “This is especially specific to our city because we try to transfer more young people as adults than the rest of Tennessee combined,” said Zahra Chowdhury, CJJC Youth Representative. “Why is just one county in our state taking up 55% of juvenile justice transfers?”

Although Shelby County has more youth tried as adults, the county’s annual report shows a decrease in transferred cases. From 2017 to 2019, the numbers have fluctuated from 92 to 78 to 90. It dropped to 49 youth in 2020 and 40 in 2021. “We should be doing more for our young people. We shouldn’t be trying to pipeline them or putting them into more contact with a system that might not be right for them,” said Chowdhury.

Van Turner, Memphis Branch NAACP President, said the goal should be rehabilitation. “If you put them further in the system and try those juveniles as adults, it’s probably no way they can return back,” said Turner. “It does not improve the community or assist the community in resolving the issue of crime when we are taking juveniles who could be rehabilitated and putting them in a system where we know there’s less likely chance of them being rehabilitated. That’s in the adult system.”

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Research shows more people of color, particularly Black youth, are tried as adults than other groups. “I think 93 or 95% of young people who are tried as adults are Black youth. That’s really really significant because 96% of the young people in Memphis are not Black, but 96% of people that we are trying as adults are Black,” said Chowdhury.

“We want equity. We want equality, and we want treatment,” said Turner. He and Chowdhury would like to see more alternative solution to trying juveniles as adults.

“Are we providing our young people with enough mental and emotional resources,” asked Chowdhury.

“I don’t think any young people wake up saying they want to commit a heinous crime…What has gotten that person there? That’s what we need to address,” said Turner.

We reached out to Shelby County Juvenile Court to see how many juveniles have been tried as adults this year, so far. We have not received a response.

The CJJC will be hosting a town hall to engage community residents, lawmakers, and criminal justice experts on this issue and possible alternative.

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