A bill that would effectively lower the age of criminal responsibility in Tennessee from 18 to 17 is receiving support from Hamilton County District Attorney Coty Wamp and opposition from trial attorneys and a juvenile court judge here.
If it became law, House Bill 1029 and its Senate companion, Senate Bill 1159, would bypass the juvenile court system for 17-year-olds charged with any crime, sending them to adult criminal court. The law would do the same for 13- to 16-year-olds charged with certain serious crimes.
The legislation is sponsored by House Speaker Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville, and Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, R-Oak Ridge.
Under the proposal, minors as young as 13 charged with murder would be sent directly to adult criminal court. Minors aged 14, 15 and 16 charged with serious offenses such as rape, robbery, attempted robbery, kidnapping or any offense committed with a deadly weapon would have their cases sent first to the adult court system, after which a district attorney would have the discretion of filing a petition for it be sent to juvenile court.
Hamilton County District Attorney General Coty Wamp said that while Hamilton County's crime trends did not contribute to the legislation, she supports Sexton.
"I think everybody is tired of the 17-year-olds that are robbing people. That's the bottom line," Wamp said in a Friday telephone interview. "People are tired of that, people are tired of juveniles shooting each other, which we see here, and we've seen here recently in the past 72 hours. So I think people are tired of it, and that's where this legislation comes from. And so I get it, and I agree. I do. But we've just got to make sure we're protecting the system as a whole."
One of the House bill's co-sponsors -- Rep. Mary Littleton, R-Dickson -- said the legislation came from suggestions from an ad hoc committee on juvenile justice last summer.
"Some crimes committed by juveniles are so heinous that they should be treated the same as adult crimes," Littleton said during a Criminal Justice Subcommittee hearing on Tuesday, according to video of the hearing. "The purpose of this legislation is to hold violent juveniles accountable for their actions and promote public safety."
Three states -- Georgia, Texas and Wisconsin -- have the age of criminal responsibility set at 17.
The Senate bill is co-sponsored by Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, whose office declined comment. Sexton's office did not respond to multiple requests for comment on the bill, which is drawing criticism from trial lawyers.
"This is like using a bazooka to kill a fly," Ben McGowan, a Chattanooga attorney and president of the Tennessee Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, said by phone Thursday. "It's going to make us poor as a state. It's going to make us less safe, and it's going to be a betrayal of the principles of reforming youth."
In a follow-up email, he added, "The unintentional consequence of the current juvenile sentencing bill -- if enacted -- will abandon our traditional notion that kids are different, that their minds and emotions don't work like adults and that the vast majority are not beyond redemption. Instead of making us safer, it overwhelms court workloads and budgets, sheriff department resources, further disables the Department of Children's Services -- all to handle a small number of juvenile offenders who the existing system is already equipped to try and punish as adults. It will take the kids who can be saved and corrected and throw them in a system that will brutalize them, train them for a life of crime and ultimately release them back into society as damaged, angry adults."
Hamilton County Juvenile Court Judge Robert Philyaw said there are a lot of pieces of the legislation that have not been adequately considered.
"That would send a lot more juveniles directly to Criminal Court," he said in an interview. "I've spent hours the last two weeks, probably hours per day, trying to point out issues that still have to be addressed."
Philyaw has been an advocate for young people's rights and has participated in talks around Hamilton County to tell teens the severity of the consequences of their actions. He not only opposes the proposed bill that he says would essentially eliminate the juvenile criminal justice step for many of the cases involving minors, but he said it also takes away any opportunity for them to turn their lives around.
Philyaw transferred four cases involving juveniles to the adult criminal court system last week, which he said he doesn't take lightly.
"It limited what we could do to try to reach and help these kids, before they get to the point of no return," Philyaw said. "Five years ago, it was, 'You darn juvenile judges are too hard on these little kids,' so they shorten the time we could keep them in treatment. They limited the ways we could get them in treatment -- they really took some tools from our toolbox -- and now five years later, the flavor is, 'You juvenile judges aren't hard enough on these kids, and we're going to send them straight to Criminal Court and let the criminal judges deal with them.'"
Wamp, the district attorney, said she is more than satisfied with the county's transfer rate and how Philyaw handles juvenile cases.
"I think he does a phenomenal job, both in protecting juveniles and also transferring those that should be tried as adults," Wamp said, adding that while she agrees with the legislation, there's still work to be done for it to be as effective as it is intended to be.
In Georgia, 17-year-olds charged with crimes are already processed as adults.
Legislators there are working to divert 17-year-olds who are not charged with serious crimes back to the juvenile court system through a bipartisan proposal sponsored by Rep. Mandi Ballinger, R-Canton.
"They can't even sit on the jury that might convict them in that court, but they still are adjudicated in that court," Ballinger told reporters last month, according to the Georgia Recorder.
Troy Rogers, the public safety coordinator for the city of Chattanooga's Office of Community Health, said the Tennessee speakers' bill takes away a chance to change for young offenders.
"I think it's an assault on Black young men," Rogers said. "Because you have a lot of kids in that range who mature ... I think they can change."
Rogers has worked for almost 20 years to mentor and deter minority boys from resorting to a life of crime and organizes felon-friendly job fairs in Chattanooga.
Rogers said he believes many Black boys carry pistols because it gives them a sense of security they are lacking in their homes -- not with the intention to commit crimes.
"You got mostly kids who are struggling at home, who are carrying pistols," Rogers said. "Nobody wakes up and says 'Oh, wow, man it's 2 o'clock, I feel like blowing some brains out.' It just don't happen, don't nobody want to go to jail."
The bill is currently scheduled to be heard by the House Criminal Justice Committee and the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday.
The Hamilton County Sheriff's Office did not respond to multiple inquiries from the Chattanooga Times Free Press about the proposed legislation.