The Memphis and Shelby County Juvenile Justice Board held its first in-person meeting in more than two years on Tuesday, June 7, at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center’s Schreier Auditorium in the Student-Alumni Center on the Memphis campus.
Altha Stewart, MD, senior associate dean for Community Health Engagement in the UTHSC College of Medicine and director of the UTHSC Center for Youth Advocacy and Well-Being, is a member of the board. Kena Vassar, director of Community Initiatives for the UTHSC Center for Youth Advocacy and Well-Being, is the vice chair of the board.
The 26-member interagency board is designed to provide advice and direction to the Board of Education in the development of school safety programs and to work collaboratively with partners in seeking program improvements and policy changes to address the needs of Memphis and Shelby County youth who are at risk of delinquency. The board has support and representation from elected officials; schools; local nonprofit, community, and faith organizations; and the court.
The goal of the meeting was to reintroduce the Juvenile Justice Board to its governmental partners and community stakeholders. The meeting also included a panel discussion on the rise in gun violence and youth crime in the city and a discussion of ways the board can provide support to reduce the problem.
State Rep. Torrey Harris moderated the panel. The panelists were Dr. Stewart; Memphis and Shelby County Juvenile Court Judge Dan Michael; and Deputy Chief of Security for Memphis-Shelby County Schools Gregory Sanders.
“The Center for Youth Advocacy and Well-being, formerly known as the Center for Health in Justice Involved Youth, was created much like the Juvenile Justice Board, as a part of a solution to what was identified as a problem,” Dr. Stewart said.
She was recruited to UTHSC in 2015, she said, “to address issues facing youth at risk for justice system involvement and look at the problem of youth violence, and to identify real, achievable goals for solutions within the communities that we are all here representing and talking about today for youth who are at risk of going into the system with undiagnosed and untreated mental illness, exposure to trauma, and those things. We ought to be able to come up with a better solution than putting those children into the juvenile justice system.”
Since then, Dr. Stewart, a psychiatrist and former president of the American Psychiatric Association, has been on a campaign to change the language from calling young people juveniles to identifying them as children again. “When we think of them as children, we behave more like they are children. We consider them in the context of childhood. We consider child development and the role that it plays in why they are where they are today, when they are in front of the courts or the law enforcement.”
“In the seven years since we were established, we now run five different programs here at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center that are solely devoted to these kids and getting upstream whenever we can to prevent them if they are being bullied or initiated into gangs or being encouraged to do delinquent and criminal acts,” Dr. Stewart continued. “We try to get upstream of that and offer alternative solutions for how they deal with the challenges in their lives.”
The panel encouraged those in attendance to design and support programs that do the same.
“We’re not about arresting our children, we are about serving our children, educating our children, helping our children,” Deputy Chief Sanders said of the 100,000 children the schools serve. He said his office focuses on “ensuring our children stay out of the system.”
Judge Michael also said he sees one of his jobs as supporting the programs that keep children out of the court. In the eight years he’s been a judge, transports to juvenile court have been reduced by 78%. Instead, youths who have committed misdemeanors are directed to diversion or programs for assistance with issues that may have led the actions. “We don’t let people in detention who have committed misdemeanors,” he said.
“We have got to build the programs that will break the cycle of trauma and that will keep them out of the courthouse,” the judge said. “Do the hard work to put me out of business.”
Dr. Stewart said the role of her center is to be a productive partner on the board.
“These are our children, and I have to say this every time I speak, I am not trying to excuse criminal behavior,” she said. “I’m trying to explain how our children find themselves, whether it’s because of an undiagnosed mental illness, exposure to trauma, living and growing up in poverty, coming up in a system where you are devalued and told that you are not worth anything until you begin to believe that about yourself. And when we talk about caring and respecting human life, if you don’t respect me and show me how to value myself, there’s no model for me to value anybody. Certainly, it’s not an excuse. I am saying we can do better.”