The Tennessee State Supreme Court late last week denied a request to review the conviction of an accused truant jailed twice at 13, allegedly without first being informed of his right to appointment of legal counsel. The young man, identified as T.W., who has diagnosed mental-health needs, failed to graduate from high school in spite of a punishment regime designed to change his pattern of absences.
Details of the court case were featured in a Center for Public Integrity report this month on allegations that some of the hundreds of accused truants summoned to Knox County Juvenile Court in Tennessee in recent years were incarcerated in juvenile detention, drug tested or faced other lasting consequences without the benefit of appointed defense counsel.
The Tennessee State Supreme Court did not provide any commentary or rationale accompanying its decision.
“Our clients have exhausted their legal remedies through the Tennessee courts. We are planning to pursue other avenues of redress,” said Dean Rivkin, a University of Tennessee law professor who filed the appeal, originally on behalf of T.W. and three other truants. The appeal has been winding through lower courts since 2011.
Rivkin hopes that the redress he is seeking will stem from an investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division, as the Center report explained.
The allegations in Knox County highlight a broader national debate over how juveniles are being treated in courts, and if minors’ legal rights are being respected or need to be strengthened.
The Center reported that Robert Listenbee, who heads the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, has asked for a Department of Justice investigation into allegations that minors in Tennessee did not benefit from appointed defense counsel, as required.
Dena Iverson, a Department of Justice spokeswoman, confirmed that information forwarded by Listenbee’s office is under review.