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Tennessee's legislature will hold a GOP-led special session this week

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Lawmakers in Tennessee are convening today for a special legislative session on public safety. After a mass shooting at an elementary school in March and the pro-gun control demonstrations that followed, some people have been hoping to see some significant gun safety measures. Right now in Tennessee, if you're 18 or older, you don't need a carry permit. There are no penalties for unsafe gun storage. And Tennessee has among the highest rates in the country for guns stolen out of cars. But as WPLN's Marianna Bacallao reports, state leaders have very different ideas of what safety means.

MARIANNA BACALLAO, BYLINE: One thing Tennessee House speaker Cameron Sexton wants to see this special session?

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CAMERON SEXTON: There's a lot of crime going on with juveniles in our state. And so we need to look at toughening juvenile laws.

BACALLAO: That's Sexton in an interview with the Tennessee Firearms Association. He said he'd be taking on this issue during the special session instead of a law that would take guns from people deemed to be a threat to themselves or others. State Senator Jeff Yarbro, a Democrat, says that's disappointing.

JEFF YARBRO: It's a sad commentary on where we are as a state that we're not willing to think about regulating firearms in any meaningful way, but we're willing to consider giving up on children who are as young as 15 and 16.

BACALLAO: In his proclamation calling the special session, Governor Bill Lee called for raising the age at which youth can have their records expunged and lowering the age at which they can be sentenced as adults. So far, no one knows what that proposal would look like. But Tennessee already has some of the strictest laws on juvenile sentencing in the country. Last year, the state Supreme Court ruled that Tennessee's practice of sentencing minors to life in prison amounts to cruel and unusual punishment.

SHEILA CALLOWAY: We did more harm to our youth than we did good.

BACALLAO: That's Nashville Juvenile Court judge Sheila Calloway.

CALLOWAY: And for those youth that go deep into the system, their recidivism rates go higher. When they get out, they tend to not be able to survive in our community, and they end up being institutionalized.

BACALLAO: Kylie Graves is with the Tennessee Commission on Children and Youth, an independent commission that keeps track of children's issues. She says juvenile crime where a gun was involved has increased by 26%.

KYLIE GRAVES: But then when we look at crimes where a firearm was used against a youth victim, that's gone up by 144%. People under 18 are more likely themselves to be the victim than they are to be the offender or perpetrator.

BACALLAO: Overall, juvenile crime has actually decreased in Tennessee over the past decade by nearly 57%, according to data from the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation.

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SEXTON: There is no way that those numbers are accurate.

BACALLAO: That's House speaker Sexton again. He's convinced crime is higher than what's being reported. And he says juveniles who commit certain crimes should get harsher sentences. Right now a minor convicted of murder in juvenile court faces a minimum two-year sentence. That same minor charged in adult court would get 25.

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SEXTON: Sixteen, 17 years old, and you pre-meditated killed somebody? I think you should be charged in adult court. Two-year sentence is too soft.

BACALLAO: But any prison time can take its toll.

ASHLEE SELLARS: There's a ton of trauma that comes along with being isolated and punished in that way, caged in that way.

BACALLAO: As a young teen, Ashlee Sellars served over 21 years for her involvement in the death of another girl. Sellars now leads the Raphah Institute, which advocates for restorative justice. She says that harsher sentencing, like Sexton's proposal, ignores the root of crime.

SELLARS: We stop asking, like, what has happened to you, and start really just asking, like, what's wrong with you?

BACALLAO: But this legislative session won't give as much room to criminal justice advocates like Sellars to raise these concerns. Lawmakers are expected to adjourn by the end of the week, which doesn't give a lot of time for expert testimony or debate.

For NPR News, I'm Marianna Bacallao in Nashville. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Marianna Bacallao

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