SHELBY COUNTY, Tenn. — A gun pointed to their head. Yanked from their cars. Sometimes, the trigger was pulled. The stories are terrifying, but what’s equally alarming, the number of juveniles committing the crimes and the small consequence some are facing due to state law.
In July, beloved Rev. Autura Eason-Williams was shot and killed in a carjacking in her own Whitehave driveway.
Police say those responsible was a 20-year-old man and two teenagers. They are just 15 and 16 years old.
As loved ones try to grasp the sudden loss, the justice system continues to grapple with what to do with the teenagers arrested.
They are eligible to be transferred to adult court where if convicted, they would be up for parole after serving 50 years. Or they could remain in the juvenile system where they could possibly get support and services, but only until their 19th birthday.
According to state law, they are set free no matter what at age 19.
“Once a juvenile is sentenced, let’s say for carjacking, and reaches their 19th birthday, supervision ends, regardless of whether the supervision is in the community or in a secure facility,” Memphis Shelby Crime Commission President Bill Gibbons explained.
That’s why he and other local leaders are pushing for another option. Between 20 and 25 states have some provision to allow to continued supervision beyond say age 19, Gibbons said.
“Clearly in my opinion, we need to change our state law to allow some kind form of extend supervision,” he said.
He said that extended supervision could be in the community or in a secured facility. Some states call it “blended sentencing.”
It’s expected to be discussed in the next legislative session. Gibbons told us he’s talked to a lot of legislators about juvenile crime, but it’s up in the air what they think needs to change.
Shelby County District Attorney Steve Mulroy supports the concept and is remaining “cautiously optimistic.”
“It’s a third way. It allows judge discretion on a case-by-case basis. Depending on the facts and circumstances, to keep the person in the juvenile court system beyond age 19. Maybe that’s 21. Maybe that’s age 25,” Mulroy said.
Shelby County Juvenile Court Judge Tarik Sugarmon agrees, saying, “Those are the cracks we want to close.”
Sugarmon and Mulroy have been in discussions about the right approach for Shelby County. They have even talking about a pilot program to pitch to lawmakers.
“It’s going to require extra resources. No question. This is something we are going to ask the state legislature to do, but it’s money well spent,” Mulroy said.
According to data from the crime commission, the number of juveniles charged with violent crime increased more than 20 percent last year compared to 2020. This year, it didn’t get any better.
The first half of 2022, 298 juveniles faced serious charges like murder, carjacking, aggravated robbery and aggravated assault.
The crime commission reports only a small group could be transferred to a state facility since space is limited, and only a small group would be tried as adults.
“So if the defendant happens to be, let’s say 17, we only get them for two years. That’s not enough time, arguably, to rehabilitate them. It also may not be enough time to be a just sentence is if the crime is very serious,” Mulroy said.
According to the Memphis Police Department, in 2020, there were 31 17-year-olds nabbed for carjackings. That number grew in 2021 and continues to grow this year.
In fact, when we tally up the data, 17-year-olds committed the most carjackings compared to other ages.
Gibbons said he believes the children know they’re going to get out at 19.
“Absolutely. I think most juveniles who are engaging in serious violent offenses know the limits of our current juvenile system and know it much better than members of the public do,” he said.