Skip to Content

Chattanooga: A City at a Crossroad

This article is a part of Shared Justice’s Series, Voices of Youth Diversion. This series looks at ways that community organizations, in partnership with state and local governments, are working together to rehabilitate youth and reduce the harmful impacts of youth interaction with the justice system.

Chattanooga, located in the southeastern corner of Tennessee, made national headlines in late May after a deadly shooting occurred in the city’s downtown riverfront area. The most disturbing detail of this shooting, without a doubt, is that it was a victimization of the city’s youth, by the city’s youth. Six teens were shot and two were sent to the ICU at the hands of their peers. Regrettably, this would not be the last tragedy of the summer: three months later, in mid-August, a sixteen-year-old was shot and killed — again, by one of his peers. Even more regrettably, these shootings find themselves lost within a larger narrative — one which tells a story of a city where gun violence, gang violence, and crime plague its youth. But there is hope, still. The story has yet to end because the city refuses to abandon its youth to this epidemic.

Hamilton County Court — Background

The familiar formula for solving youth crime is juvenile probation. Probation is typically described as a “form of community supervision” where a justice-involved youth is monitored by an officer of the court. Often referred to as the workhorse of the juvenile justice system, over half of the U.S.’s justice-involved youth end up on probation — but the evidence begs that this should not be the case. For example, in 2018, the Annie E. Casey Foundation found that “surveillance-oriented probation is not an effective strategy for reversing delinquent behavior, with insignificant effects on reoffending and especially poor results with youth at low risk of rearrest.” The realization that probation is ineffective as the one-size-fits-all cure to delinquency has led to a movement for youth diversion programs — some of which Hamilton County (wherein Chattanooga resides) has implemented in its own juvenile court proceedings. In fact, Hamilton County is one of only two Tennessee counties that does not utilize the state’s probation services, though it did place 129 juveniles in county probation services in 2020, according to the state’s most recent child services report. The fourth largest county in the state, its probation cases were slightly higher than counties of comparable size, but those who participated reoffended 11% of the time, just under the state average of 12%. For a city as plagued by gun violence as Chattanooga, this should come as encouraging news.

That’s the story the data tells — and it seems to match what Chattanooga’s juvenile system presently has to serve its justice-involved youth: a system largely reliant on probation, but also moving in the direction of diversion. Within its juvenile court, Hamilton County also has what it calls Youth Court and Recovery Court. To get the most accurate information regarding these courts, I reached out to Denise Cook-Lowe, a director of the juvenile court in Hamilton County. She provided the lion’s share of the following information via email correspondence. 

According to Cook-Lowe, both courts are considered diversion courts, with Recovery Court aimed particularly at juveniles with substance-abuse issues, and Youth Court aimed at diverting most delinquent youth from traditional sentencing. Juvenile offenders and their guardians must agree to participate in either program; it is voluntary in that sense — but a juvenile does not have the option of either court unless a magistrate refers them. In Recovery Court, a juvenile with a non-violent offense that has not yet received a disposition (or, a sentence) must complete a program of rehabilitation, wherein they and their guardian remain actively involved or risk sending the juvenile back to their original sentencing process. Youth Court, also voluntary, receives a variety of referrals from departments such as Family Services and Informal Adjustment for any youth adjudicated delinquent that is not actively on probation or in need of mental-health or substance-abuse services. Sentences in Youth Court are determined by a jury of youth volunteers from local high schools and usually consist of community service hours, mentoring, counseling, letters of apology, volunteer hours and other alternative consequences. But the Juvenile Court itself also offers a route away from traditional disposition. With the primary goal of the Court being to “address the underlying issues that brought the child to the court in the first place,” processes like informal adjustment help youth avoid probation and other traditional consequences.

With this information, we have a better view of the trajectory for justice-involved youth in Chattanooga. Certainly, the city (or rather, the county) has made efforts to introduce restorative practices into its juvenile court processes. Justice-involved youth have options that go beyond probation, community service, or confinement — they have access to treatment, mentors and programs run by the city’s vast swath of nonprofits that hope to restore them to their communities rather than further alienate them. But given the overall backdrop of a gun violence epidemic, what exactly is on the horizon for youth in Chattanooga?


The city of Chattanooga is poised to invest unprecedented resources into its youth in the coming years. Following this past summer’s wave of youth gang violence, Mayor Tim Kelly has labeled the city’s gun violence issue as a public health crisis. With this new label came a roadmap for “Ending Gun Violence in Chattanooga,” or, in other words, a series of new policies and initiatives that the city believes will work toward ending the crisis. At the top of the list for funding are mentorship programs for youth. This prioritization is critical given that mentorship has a long, proven history of reducing delinquent behavior and, by virtue of this reduction, reliance on common juvenile court services such as probation and detention. Announced on July 28, the roadmap outlines a $3.7 million investment into youth engagement programs, $1.2 million for youth mental health, increased police presence in areas of high concern, and a curfew of 11 pm for children under sixteen on the weekends, among other new developments. Local mentorship organizations like the Lighthouse Collective and the Pursuit of Happiness — which specifically counsel kids affected by gang violence — and national organizations like the YMCA will all benefit from this funding. The YMCA will receive roughly $300,000 in funding, giving them the capacity to open a new location in the East Lake area that will serve around 30,000 more children. Another local group — a religious organization called Kingdom Partners — will receive $500,000 in funding to train thirty other grassroots organizations on recruiting mentors from every corner of Chattanooga.

This is excellent news for the city’s youth. It appears that Chattanooga is finally putting its money where its mouth is: public officials are responding to the growing body of evidence that suggests diversion and mentoring is far more likely to restore a youth to the community than probation or incarceration. City leaders such as Mayor Kelly, Oliver Richmond of Kingdom Partners, and spokeswoman Kirsten Yates have each emphasized the role of mentorship in changing the lives of at-risk youth. But more than that, their comments show an understanding of the particular mentorship that is needed: according to Yates, these are programs that “fit the specific needs of the community.” This gets at something policymakers and politicians frequently miss, which is that there is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all solution to any problem. The world is far too complicated, and throwing money at a problem without clear direction is massively unjust for a mountain of reasons. Every nation, city and neighborhood is different, necessitating unique solutions that put its own needs and people at the top of the priority list. For this to be possible, the many institutions that comprise our nations, cities, and neighborhoods must collaborate. What Chattanooga needs is public justice.


Three months ago, I accepted a job as a high school English teacher and moved to Chattanooga from Washington state. I knew little about the South, Tennessee, or what to expect working as a first-year teacher at an inner-city school. I was not ignorant to Chattanooga’s troubles, nor to the fact that many of those same troubles would be present in the lives of my students. Those “justice-involved” youth from the newspapers, the data, and the first half of this article are the same kids who walk into my classroom each morning and afternoon. What I can tell you is that the data and the newspapers are not wrong about the facts: our kids have frightening access to weapons, have been incarcerated, put on probation and lost loved ones to the violence in their communities. Many of our kids are mothers and fathers themselves, full-time employees, full-time students and, frankly, have lived more life than their 22-year-old teacher. But they are also still only children — children with social-emotional, literacy and numeracy skills in desperate need of development if they are to rebuild their communities, rise above their generational traumas, and forge bright futures for themselves.

So, when we talk about what Chattanooga has pledged to do for its youth, I struggle with the lack of mention for education. Public justice is the principle that requires the involvement of all society’s unique and valuable institutions in seeking human flourishing, because such an approach is the only way justice can truly be established. Flourishing, if ever we are to achieve it, will only be realized when all domains of human existence — government, education, business, and so forth — work in tandem. 

Chattanooga’s city government has done well to reinforce the strength of its many domains by supporting nonprofits and community churches who are rooting out violence amongst its youth through mentorship. It’s done just as well to create court programs for justice-involved youth that keep them out of jail and in school and off of probation to be with mentors. That said, it would do even better to also support the city’s schools and the work they’re doing to better serve students. The school district has worked hard on teacher retention this year: the benefits are, admittedly, impressive and teachers working at hard-to-staff schools receive fairly competitive pay and bonuses. This investment in teachers recognizes the importance of keeping schools stable with teachers who want to stay. Additionally, and though not directly aimed at ameliorating youth violence, Hamilton County Schools has a county-wide program that builds post-secondary skills in high school students. Future Ready Institutes in 13 Chattanooga-area high schools are preparing students for positive community impact after they graduate by bringing in experts from fields such as aviation, hospitality, entrepreneurship, agriculture and more to teach classes in schools as certified teachers. This program gives students outstanding opportunities to think more deeply about their goals for post-graduate life, but still, more is necessary to provide schools with the ability to support youth diversion programs and mentorship, as well as positive social emotional and career development.

I see firsthand the way these expert teachers and their classes engage the students on a different level; it makes their learning feel more real and it has a clear, practical application that can support their livelihood. Of course, this doesn’t diminish the work I do as an English teacher or that any other does as a teacher of a core-subject. All these classes work together to give our kids a more holistic education. But, frankly, the classes we teach are not enough, and neither are the benefits or the extra pay. Hard-to-staff schools have remained hard-to-staff, evidenced by resignations that have already been penned a month into this school year and positions that have remained open since last year. Systemic problems require institutional-level solutions. Better pay and benefits and classes that give students tangible career skills are excellent first-steps, but that doesn’t solve the systemic issues that prevent learning and push teachers into different careers. Nearly 70 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Chattanooga’s schools (and Tennessee’s in general) remain segregated across racial and economic lines. Hamilton County Schools are divided into learning communities. Two of these learning communities, Midtown and Missionary Ridge, are home to all of the district’s lowest-performing schools, and most — if not all — are not even remotely integrated. For example: a map of Brainerd High School’s zone in the Midtown learning community compared against a map of Chattanooga’s racial demographics is quite revealing; the lines for the school are drawn nearly directly around the eastern part of town that most black Chattanoogans call home. But worse than that reality is the blatant rejection of movements to desegregate by current members of Hamilton County’s School Board. Apparently, desegregation “won’t work” for Chattanoogans — a third of whom are black.


What will work to protect Chattanooga’s youth from the violence they experience? Strong mentors that look like the kids they serve? Better pay for teachers so at-risk students have consistent role models? Diversion from the probationary and carceral system? The long-needed integration of schools? The answer is certainly all of these and more. Nonprofits, churches, businesses and teachers mentoring kids nurtured by their families and protected by their governments represents the best of this ideal. Each of these institutions on its own isn’t enough, and even a majority of them may not be. Time will tell if the city’s investments in the programs of nonprofits and churches will impact its youth — but I certainly believe they will.

In this first month as a teacher, one of many things I’ve learned is that kids grow the most when someone sees the best they can be — even when they show their worst. That’s what teachers and mentors are meant to do; so, it follows that the more teachers and mentors we have, the better off our kids will be. Diversion programs like the ones currently instituted in Hamilton County are equally essential because of what they do to keep kids out of damaging systems and connect them further with teachers and mentors. They change the narrative such that children’s restoration to their community through education and mentorship is prioritized over receiving punishment for a crime. Each of these bright spots in Chattanooga’s current state of affairs are prime examples of public justice realized: a government and a civil society working together for community flourishing. There is little that cannot be accomplished when an entire community realizes the power of collaborating institutions. Schools and teachers have immense potential to be a transformative piece in solving the public justice puzzle for youth in Chattanooga, and local officials ought to consider them in their plans to address the city’s specific and systemic crises.

I hope, soon, that Chattanooga further capitalizes on the benefits of partnering with schools and teachers and sets its sights not only on the growth of public and private partnerships for youth diversion programs, but also on the dismantling of systemically racist and classist structures that push our most vulnerable kids toward failure. It is these systems that, from the start, make it easier for youth to be punished in court than counseled by the mentors and teachers who see their full potential. If Chattanooga’s youth are to truly flourish, the city must first uproot the injustices that keep them out of school and endanger their homes and neighborhoods.

Caleb Crary is a high school English teacher in Chattanooga, Tennessee. He recently graduated from Whitworth University with a political science degree and was a policy and research intern for CPJ in 2021.


1. Sign up to receive Shared Justice’s monthly newsletter and stay up to date on the latest content, resources, and highlights.

2. Write for us! To learn more about writing for Shared Justice, email

3. Form a Political Discipleship group to practice meaningful political engagement in your community. The Center for Public Justice’s Political Discipleship is a guide for active Christian citizenship, designed to empower people with skills and tools to shape policy and address inequality and injustice in their communities. To learn more about starting a group, visit our website or contact

Similar Articles

Back to top