As Rob Philyaw and I enjoyed lunch with one another last weekend, he barely had time to tell me about a host of both good and bad things he wanted to kick around. But I just wanted to know one thing from the man who sits on the highest perch of those I most admire in our community. Our Juvenile Court Judge has what I believe to be the toughest task of any elected official. I couldn’t bear facing what he and his court officers must endure on a daily basis.
In his role he sees deadbeat parents, kids so neglected it is criminal, an endless wave of children whose psychotropic drugs aren’t doing the job, and other horrors involving defenseless children – any one of them enough to make you absolutely weep. Both Rob and I arrived at lunch, each with a handful of documented problems that our juvenile justice system can no longer ignore. My God, Judge Philyaw has presided over 15,000 child custody/support cases alone!
But my lone question for the Judge, who has now been on the Hamilton County juvenile bench for just under five years, was simple and direct. “What are the chances of a Nikolas Cruz being in our area?” Cruz, who has been a serious trouble-maker since his mother called the police on the seriously-troubled school shooter when he was just 14 years-old, this in 2013, actually murdered 16 former school mates and a beloved coach in Parkland, Fla., on Valentine’s Day.
Every bit as shocking is that he and his bizarre behavior went unchallenged and un-corralled by a multitude of responsible people, law enforcement agencies, and other organizations in an unthinkable span lasting over five years. By the age of 18 he had become a fully-developed monster, a psychopath, and don’t kid yourself – there are others just like him across our United States.
But here, in Hamilton County? “Since I have been on the bench, four of those I have faced are serving life sentences and two more will soon follow them,” Judge Philyaw said with a heavy sound in his voice. “Our juvenile justice system in Tennessee is broken -- anybody can see it.
“If our legislature accepts or adapts a recent report by a Blue Ribbon Task Force charged by the governor, it will be the worst thing that could ever happen. Quite frankly, if the report is accepted, the state’s Juvenile Court Judges will no longer be able to legally deal with what we see every day.”
But, wait! Less than 36 hours after Rob and I shared salads at J. Alexander’s, a punk kid commandeered the Hamilton Place shopping center around 6 p.m. on Saturday. He was waving a pistol, according to reports, and the Chattanooga Police reported a huge fight in “an aggravated riot.” They are looking for a suspect named David LeBron Ballard, age 18 … the same age as the despicable Florida high school shooter, Nikolas Cruz.
Nikolas killed 17. Ballard none, but what’s the difference on your mayhem meter? A gun is a gun … a fired gun as good as lethal. There were reports of “shots fired” at Hamilton Place. Police closed the mall early. Advantage? It’s allegedly David LeBron Ballard. Age 18. Tell me what you believe to be the difference in the two shooters? Be honest. Nada.
On Sunday and Monday Philyaw met with the state’s other juvenile judges and late yesterday was huddled with the governor’s attorneys trying to avert a real crisis. At the start, the Blue Ribbon Committee was good but then some “activists” from the now-questionable Pew Charitable Trust got involved. Soon this decidedly Left-leaning bunch “high jacked the committee,” in the words of several state judges.
Let’s let Philyaw explain it, these comments taken from an urgent letter he wrote last week to state legislator Mike Carter, an experienced jurist himself. “Our Hamilton County court cooperated fully and opened up its data to Pew but asked to see their work.
“When obvious and important mistakes were noted, those corrections were largely ignored,” Philyaw continued. For example: “I know of no judge (in the state) who commits children solely for first-offense shoplifting – it simply does not happen, yet that sort of claim is peppered throughout the report.”
"What’s wrong with juvenile justice? “Beds have been reduced, whole facilities have been closed (like Taft Youth Center). Private firms now run what few facilities we have and programs have been dramatically cut short. In an effort to cut and cut and cut,” he explained, “We have undermined juvenile justice in a cruel and totally irresponsible way.
“The reality is that juveniles today are getting into deeper and more serious trouble, especially when turned back into the community prematurely. They commit more crimes, with real victims, and then they are brought back to the court. It makes no sense at all.”
You should know Chattanooga was just prominently featured on all the major networks after what police described as a “major fight” broke out at Hamilton Place. It closed down the entire shopping mall about 6 p.m. Saturday. After watching surveillance tapes, police have identified a primary suspect and are ready to serve him warrants for his arrest. Mind you, Ballard is 18 years old and it’s an easy bet Saturday’s mayhem wasn’t his first rodeo.
“Under the report, judges would have nowhere to send these people,” Philyaw offered. ‘What are the police going to do without facilities? Just let the kids sit in the car?” said the judge. Apparently the Pew Center is not located in the land of reality and, to a man or woman, the state’s juvenile judges agree that the task force report might save money at first, but believe any cuts to juvenile crime will be very expensive and could allow a Tennessee clone of Nikolas Cruz to also fully develop into a monster.
There is no question, according to every expert, that Cruz has severe mental faults. Are you kidding me? He just murdered 16 kids and a beloved assistant football coach at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. The coach, Aaron Feis, used his body to shield students but as the school’s security guard, he was not allowed to carry a firearm. What if he could have fired back? We’ll never know.
“Listen, juvenile justice is not about punishment and to my knowledge no judge in Tennessee treats is as such,” said Philyaw. “It’s about treatment, rehabilitation, education, independent living skills. We need to encourage kids, protect children who are victims, protect others around them, and the community as a whole.
“I promise you … our juvenile courts can successfully deter a life of crime but when you strip away our resources, when you limit a judge’s wisdom, and allow us to be swayed by those who have no inkling of what judges in this particular state of Tennessee actually face each day, I hate to use a cliché but, wow, talk about an accident waiting to happen.”
When do you want to meet the Tennessee version of Nikolas Cruz? Trust me, he or she is out there. Without a dramatic resurgence in mental-health ability and juvenile justice, guys like David LeBron Ballard will continue to bring their illegal guns to Hamilton Place Mall on Saturday nights. Nobody is stopping them. I’m telling you, it just happened.
This is reality. It is here in Hamilton County. What more proof do you need to see?
It’s time to shoot back.