Surprising number of juveniles tried as adults in Shelby County court

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MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Shelby County Jail East is where criminals do time, but some of those criminals are actually kids.

We went inside the jail pod where they are housed. During our visit, nine were in the lock-up, all 17 years old.

The juveniles remain at Jail East until either they turn 18 and are sent to 201 Poplar or until they are convicted and sent to the penitentiary.

Those who land here are in for serious crimes like rape and murder, or they have a long list of runs in with the law.

"If it's an aggravated burglary and the juvenile is 17 years old and it's their 79th trip to juvenile court, they leave us with no choice," Shelby County District Attorney Amy Weirich said.

Weirich's office makes the request to send juvenile cases to adult court.

"Again there is no magic formula that we say for this age or this crime we are always going to ask for a transfer to juvenile court. We will evaluate every case on its own strength, its own merits, its own weaknesses," Weirich said.

Since 2013, the DA's office requested hundreds of transfers.

There were 266 in 2013, 190 in 2014 and 153 in 2015.

By comparison, Nashville's Davidson County requested 30 transfers in 2013 and 19 in 2014 and 2015.

"It's the hardest part of my job," juvenile court Judge Dan Michael said.

Michael has the final say in deciding whether to grant the DA's transfer request.

"Understand, merely having a hearing doesn't mean I am going to transfer the child. I can get to the end of transfer hearing and have gotten to the end of transfer hearings and said you know what, I think I can rehabilitate this child. I am going to deny your transfer and I have done that," Michael said. "Most of the children that wind up going downtown, their acts are so severe and their histories are so severe, we have thrown everything at them that we can throw at them."

Over the years, fewer and fewer transfer requests have been granted by the juvenile court judge. In 2011 there were 121; last year it was down to 47.

That was after the Department of Justice found Shelby County Juvenile Court had discriminatory practices and serious failures in transferring minority juveniles.

The court made changes and started looking more closely at each juvenile's background when considering their transfer.

"About four or five years ago, we got a lot more in-depth, began to give us more information that told us this child might be salvageable," Michael said.  "Having more information give us the ability to make a better decision in the long run whether they go downtown or not."

He hopes the trend continues, giving the juvenile court system a chance to do what he said they are about, changing lives and saving youth.

Tennessee State Rep. G.A. Hardaway has proposed a bill allowing juvenile court systems in Tennessee to keep jurisdiction of juveniles until the age of 25 as opposed to 18.