Teenage Mischief Can Lead To Jail Time In Tennessee

Teenagers get in trouble for skipping school, breaking curfew or buying cigarettes, but in one Tennessee county, that can mean jail. Susan Ferriss reported on this for the Center for Public Integrity.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. We're going to spend this part of the program talking about our criminal justice system and how it treats some of the country's most vulnerable citizens. In a few minutes, we'll hear from NPR's Joe Shapiro about his series called "Guilty And Charged." It's about fees and penalties that more and more states are charging poor defendants. And he describes how these fees are not only keeping already poor people in poverty, in some cases, those fees are sending people behind bars.

But first, we're going to focus on how some of the youngest defendants can get locked up without benefit of counsel - often for things that aren't technically crimes. In Knox County, Tennessee teenagers who were caught with cigarettes or skipping school can find themselves in handcuffs, facing steep fines and even criminal records, all without being represented by counsel. Joining us to talk about this is Susan Ferriss. She wrote about the issue for the Center for Public Integrity, and she's with us now. Welcome. Thanks for joining us.

SUSAN FERRISS: Thank you very much.

MARTIN: You say that many of these kids are brought into the system because of something called status offenses. These are things that would not be crimes if they were adults. Can you tell us more about that?

FERRISS: That's right. Status offenses are really only committed by children. They are truancy - in most states that's a status offense, not a full-blown delinquency - running away, tobacco possession, in some states alcohol possession, violating curfew.

MARTIN: Tell us about one young girl that you profiled for your piece.

FERRISS: We spoke with a girl we identified as AG. She's a young woman now. She was 15 years old, and she was accused of truancy. This was a girl who suffered bullying at school and was going through a lot of personal problems. She had a lot of conflict with her family - refusing to go to school in the morning. And she was eventually - her name was referred for prosecution to the District Attorney's Office.

She showed up in court for her court date with her mother, and she did not have an attorney. Her parents didn't even think of doing that. She pled guilty, and the judge had her jailed immediately from court. So she spent a night in a detention center. She was shackled and taken in, had to put on a uniform, spent the night in a cell. And the next morning, she was - her parents were told to take her to school. And she had deteriorated so much emotionally, they instead took her to a doctor, and she ended up in a psychiatric facility for about a week.

MARTIN: Your reporting suggests these kids routinely go through this and are locked up or plead guilty to offenses without the benefit of legal counsel. Most people who've seen cop shows have seen, you know, you've got the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law. You have the right, you know - and if you can't afford counsel, it will be appointed for you. You're saying that that doesn't apply in juvenile court?

FERRISS: Well, this is a really good question. It does apply juvenile court for crimes. But when kids are accused of status offenses, when they first go into court they have no constitutional right to the appointment of counsel. In other words, if they can afford to hire an attorney, they can bring that attorney with them. Or if they have access to a pro bono counsel - and states vary - some states have taken steps to require that these kids be appointed counsel before they enter a plea. But there is no constitutional right.

MARTIN: You pointed out there was one courtroom where the local attorneys had even offered to set up a kind of a pro bono program. Local attorneys would volunteer to assist these kids in these circumstances, and the judge said no.

FERRISS: That's correct. In Knox County, Tennessee, a group of attorneys - some of them affiliated with the University of Tennessee - and some local business attorneys offered to set up a pro bono service at the court - in the court lobby, for example - where as children arrive for hearings on truancy with their parents, these attorneys could offer to, for free, represent them or advise them. And the judge chose not to grant permission for that project to be set up.

MARTIN: And he's never explained that.

FERRISS: The explanation I received from some of the attorneys who tried to personally persuade him was that he didn't think that there was a really serious need for these kids to have counsel from the beginning in court. Now the law is, eventually, if these children go back to court because they continue to commit truancy, or they're put on probation, and they violate it - and when they get to the point where they can be accused of violating those orders, they're supposed to get an attorney before the judge can resort to putting them in detention - to jailing them as an attempt to control them, kind of a last resort.

Now actually, under federal law, status offenders are not supposed to be jailed immediately. But in 1980 there was a congressional amendment added to federal law that permitted judges to resort to jailing if they went through a process of giving instructions to the child, the child didn't follow the orders and, usually with multiple hearings, eventually was appointed an attorney, if indigent, before any jailing could take place.

MARTIN: Is there any common attribute of the kids who tend to fall into this category? I know that in Knox County, Tennessee the overwhelming majority of the kids who were in the system were white. Is there any overwhelming kind of common characteristic that they have? Is it mainly that they don't have money?

FERRISS: Yes, most of them are low income. And they also are in families that have some sort of - some varying degrees - individual crises going on whether it's the child having a crisis of some sort, the family - perhaps the family is moving a lot, perhaps they have transportation problems.

I spoke to kids who said that they had developed anxiety at school, and sometimes they felt physically unable to leave their house in the morning.

MARTIN: What would you say, though, to those who would argue that these are status offenses that don't follow you into adulthood. So is it really that serious a matter if a kid is adjudicated for something like this that essentially goes away when a person reaches his or her majority, you know, 18 or 21? What would you say to that?

FERRISS: Well, actually it doesn't go away. There are variety of repercussions and consequences - some are very concrete. A kid who ends up jailed usually has a delinquency record, too, which the equivalent of a crime.

So in other words, their status offense - the status offense has been jacked up to a crime. And these records are permanent unless they are expunged. Some of the kids in Knox County didn't even know that they had delinquency records.

MARTIN: As a result of your reporting, what are you seeing? Has there been any reaction to it or...

FERRISS: There has been some reaction. As we were reporting, in fact, we contacted the Federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, and the Justice Department has become interested in this case. They had received some complaints from lawyers of kids down in Knox County - lawyers who met these kids after they'd been jailed.

And the complaints were that these kids were being put into the system and not getting counsel to guide them through. And perhaps look at what was going on at their school and if their school could be doing more for them because some of the kids I spoke with had never been tested for special needs - never been offered some sort of alternative plan inside their school to help get them through this time.

MARTIN: Susan Ferriss writes for the Center for Public Integrity, and she was kind enough to join us here in our Washington, D.C. studios. Susan, thanks so much for joining us.

FERRISS: Thank you.

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