Williamson County handles young criminal offenders in different way

Photo: WKRN

WILLIAMSON COUNTY, Tenn. (WKRN) – Williamson County Juvenile Services has a different approach to dealing with young offenders they believe is proving to be successful.

The average stay at the detention center is about two to three days. That’s much shorter than the national average for juvenile detention which is about 20 days, according to The Annie E. Casey Foundation, an organization aimed at helping disadvantaged youth.

Part of the reason for that lower number, the county’s juvenile court Judge Sharon Guffee doesn’t find locking up kids to be beneficial.

“What we’re finding is that children don’t respond to being locked up. It actually can make them worse,” Judge Guffee said.

While waiting to go before Judge Guffee for a hearing, young offenders might stay overnight in the detention center or until more permanent housing is found.

If the child is deemed a safety risk to themselves or the community, an actual stay in detention may be appropriate.

“The whole focus in juvenile court is to make sure that this child doesn’t go on to frequent the system as an adult,” the judge said.

Judge Sharon Guffee (Photo: WKRN)

The Annie E. Casey Foundation backs up the Judge Guffee’s concerns.

Quoting research, a spokesperson for the foundation said, “Over the long term, youth who spend time in custody are less likely to complete high school” and “to find employment,” and they’re “more likely to suffer mental health problems” and “be arrested again.”

“I think over the next 10 to 15 years, you’re going to see that detention centers are probably going to go by the wayside, and be replaced with something softer, and kinder,” the judge said.

News 2 spoke to a teen offender, who said at the age of 16 she faced charges for thefts and drugs.

By the age of 16, “Jane” faced charges for theft and drugs.

“I was very careless. I didn’t care about anything,” the teenager, who News 2 is identifying as “Jane” said.

Her charges led to three separate stays in Williamson County’s Juvenile Detention Center for a total of seven nights.

“They’re gray doors with a little window at the top, and they can see in, but you can’t see out,” she recalled. “They’re very strict, like I couldn’t have a hair tie. You can’t have any earrings. No necklaces. Just safety precautions because they’re considered weapons.”

Jane said home incarceration gave her time to reflect and change her tune.

Jane (Photo: WKRN)

“You just can’t have a phone. No Internet. No friends other than school. You just have to come home every day,” Jane said. “You really think about some things, and I was only 16 at the time, so I’m sitting here thinking what am I doing with my life?”

Williamson County’s approach seems to be working. The detention center has 12 beds and is rarely at or over capacity.

At the same time, the number of juvenile felony cases is down from 184 in 2015, to 144 in 2016.

Misdemeanors fell slightly from 1,845 in 2015, to 1,842 in 2016.

“Probably 90 to 95 percent of the children that we see, we’ll never see again,” Judge Guffee said. “They just need a little nudge and a little positive reinforcement and they’re going to be fine.”

Williamson County Juvenile Services offers several programs for offenders including anger management, counseling, and drug and alcohol education and treatment.

They have also just started a new class called Epic Girl aimed at educating female offenders on how to stay safe.

Click here for more information about Williamson County Juvenile Services and the programs offered.