MEMPHIS, Tenn. — WREG explores a controversial solution to reducing violence in Memphis among young people. The Department of Justice is recommending raising the minimum age for those who can be tried as adults.
Under the proposed plan, those as old as 24 years old could be treated as juveniles.
The recommended change is creating a big debate, especially among victims.
“They knew that was not their car and they went there to do just what they did and take my son’s life,” said Ruth Wilkins.
Three guys are charged with killing Wilkins’ grandson. Police say they shot Larry Wilkins in a robbery after they answered a Craigslist ad to buy his Ford Mustang.
Twenty-one-year-old Brandon Vance went straight to criminal court. A juvenile court magistrate decided the other two, Martiness Henderson and Walter Collins, who were both 17 years old at the time, would also be tried as adults.
“At 17 years old, 16 years old, I don’t care how old or how young you are. If you plan to do something like that, you should be considered as an adult,” said Larry Wilkins, Sr., the victim’s father.
Under a plan by the U.S. Department of Justice, all three suspects might have the opportunity to be treated as juveniles. The federal agency is recommending juvenile courts raise the age of teens they serve from 18 years old to somewhere between 21 and 24 years old.
“Young people who commit these types of crimes are not always thinking correctly,” said John Hall, a former juvenile probation officer.
Hall spent 30 years working in juvenile justice and now consults for the Justice Department. He says the change is based on brain development.
“In research, a neuroscientist says that youth is not fully developed until the ages of 18 to 24,” said Hall.
WREG visited the JIFF program and saw teens that are similar to the young offenders the Justice Department is talking about. JIFF stands for Juvenile Intervention and Faith Based follow-up. They were learning about the culinary arts, but not by choice. Juvenile court sent them to JIFF after they got into trouble.
Most of the teens in JIFF have been arrested an average of five times each, and some even committed violent crimes.
JIFF executive director, Richard Graham said, “The number one thing we focus on is changing the youth’s relative value system. From this is the way that I roll. This is the culture I was born into to one of an absolute value system.”
At 18 years old, the teens are no longer part of JIFF. Graham says some of them still need the services, but JIFF needs more private donors to expand the program or juvenile court would have to raise the age of those it serves.
Raising the age of juvenile court is something the chief administrator of the court thinks they might need to do.
“Until they’re age 21, I think that would be a good compromise,” said Larry Scroggs of Shelby County Juvenile Court.
Scroggs thinks 24 may be too old for juvenile court, but says cutting services at 18 often is too early. He says the problem is where to house them.
“You cannot put a 14-year-old with a 20-year-old or 21-year-old, so there would have to be some special housing for them,” said Scroggs.
Even if the Department of Justice approved the plan, it would need to convince families like the Wilkinses.
“If they want to change the law, I don’t think it’s right,” said Wilkins, Sr.
He added, “If the crime is heinous like you go out and kill somebody to take something, you made a decision that you’re grown and that’s the decision you have to live with.”
Police say it was one of the 17-year-olds who pulled the trigger, killing Wilkins’ son.