Inside the Juvenile Justice Center in Nashville, Tennessee is a steel door fitted with a high-security system. Push a button and the door unlocks, revealing another steel door with a slot for IDs. When that door buzzes, I walk through with video gear. I’m searched, as is the gear. An hour later, I hear the sound of shackles from down the hall, and a 16-year-old girl in an orange jumpsuit appears.
That meeting 14 years ago began an odyssey that eventually found me on the periphery of a political battle in Tennessee, one of the nation’s most conservative states. Bipartisan leaders there are struggling to change some of Tennessee’s heavy-handed juvenile sentencing laws that require juveniles convicted of first-degree murder to serve a minimum of 51 years.