MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Memphis Police have said time and time again they’re catching teens committing crimes while wearing ankle monitors, so WREG Investigators started digging to see what’s really going on.
“I remember, you know, you have those moments when you have that odd feeling like something is not right, but you don’t know what it is immediately,” Michael Phillips said. “Then I realize, wait a second, there’s no car in my driveway.”
Someone stole his Hyundai Tuscon.
“So I called it into the police as soon as it happened,” he said.
Hours later on that Monday in January, Phillips’ vehicle was spotted on Madison Avenue with a group of teenagers inside. Several were 13 years old.
Police said the teens tried to steal another car and got into a crash. Eight teens were taken into custody on charges including theft and evading arrest.
That’s not all. Police said one of the teens had an ankle monitor on probation for a carjacking.
Shelby County Juvenile Court said ankle monitors are assigned when a child is charged with a violent act. The child could be waiting on their day in court, or it’s part of post-adjudication, meaning part of their sentence.
Through the Tennessee Public Records Act, WREG Investigators uncovered nearly 50 Memphis police reports in a four-month period involving at least one child wearing an ankle monitor.
A third are reports of the child running away.
The other reports connect the child with an ankle monitor to something more serious like a shooting, carjacking or robbery.
One report states an ankle monitor “pinged” at an apartment the teen shouldn’t be at, where police said he and five other kids took “several appliances.”
Another stated a child wearing an “ankle monitor due to charges from robbery and gun possession” broke into a home and stole a “purse.”
Sixteen reports were for vehicle theft. Some involved the same child, like when police said in January a teen wearing an ankle monitor stole Dorian Berry’s Kia.
Days before, officers said they caught the same child and his buddy, both wearing ankle monitors, in a stolen vehicle.
“It’s like, how can you be out here causing this havoc at 2 or 3 in the morning? You’re not accountable for being somewhere?” Berry said.
After taking office, Shelby County Juvenile Court Judge Tarik Sugarmon told WREG Investigators he added stricter compliance orders for ankle monitors and stated he had 5 to 11 staffers, depending on the time of day, monitoring them 24/7.
We asked for another interview to talk about the reports we found and whether improvements needs to be made. His staff sent a statement, saying in part, “Judges must honor court rules that prohibit commenting publicly on matters pending before the court.”
“That’s a really large number,” Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland said about the reports. “It confirms what Memphis police officers have been telling me and what I have been trying to tell the public. They are so tired of arresting the same people, juveniles in particular, over and over and over for the same crimes.”
Strickland said he met with Judge Sugarmon about his concerns. We asked him if any resolution came from the meeting.
“I don’t know. I just think that we have different philosophies. He is the elected juvenile court judge, so he gets to make the final call,” he said.
Mayor Stickland said they did work together and with local law enforcement to apply for a $6 million state grant to fund more intervention programs for children on the wrong path. The governor’s office is working to get us an update on the application.
Juvenile Court states as of July 7, they were electronically monitoring 73 juveniles post-adjudication. That’s nearly three times the amount compared to the same time in 2021 and in 2022.
They didn’t have a recidivism rate for the children being electronically monitored. What we do know is Judge Sugarmon and his team went before the county commission in June.
“Our work must be guided by proven principles that provide positive youth development to ensure our efforts are restorative, they are developmentally appropriate, culturally competent and trauma informed,” he said.
They asked for an additional $4.6 million to fund 40 new positions. Half would work with delinquent youth to combat an increase in workloads and provide more one-on-one support.
Right now, when a child gets an ankle monitor as part of their sentence, staff said there are “approximately 9 counselors” that “may case manage and monitor progress.”
They also stated, “When ankle monitors are required, they work best in concert with a full array of positive youth justice services,” which is what they’re trying to do.
The additional funding has yet to be approved.
As for Phillips, he still grapples with that day.
“It was a huge inconvenience, and it was dangerous to a lot of people,” Phillips said. “But at the same time they are kids.”
He said poverty, social media, lack of investment in neighborhoods are all issues part of the bigger problem. Like so many, he just wants a safe community.
“The question is how do we create an environment where people are able to create that for themselves,” he said.
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