Judge Sheila Calloway Takes a Different Approach with Juveniles 

Davidson County Juvenile Judge Sheila Calloway, 47, is originally from Louisville, Kentucky.

“I had a tight family growing up. My parents were college educated, so there was never a question about whether I was going to college, but where I was going to go,” she said.

When she was growing up, Sheila’s mom saved everything she did as a child. In the fourth grade, she wrote a paper that said when she grew up she wanted to be a lawyer and help people.

“No one in our family was a lawyer, and I don’t know if I saw one on TV or what but for then on it was a goal of mine,” she said. “At one point, I thought I was going to be an entertainment lawyer because I like to sing but I now I realize that wasn’t for me.”

In 1987, she moved to Nashville to go to college at Vanderbilt University for her undergraduate degree. Once she finished her undergraduate, she loved Nashville so much that she stayed at Vanderbilt for her law degree.

After she finished her law degree in 1994, she started working at the public defender’s office, first in the adult division. Four years later, she noticed an opportunity and an opening in the juvenile division.

Sheila asked the former mayor and her boss at the time, Karl Dean if he would consider letting her go down to the juvenile court. He said sure, and so she started as a public defender in juvenile court.

“The adult criminal system was more crime and punishment, but it was different for juveniles. It became was a true effort to figure out why the juvenile was committing a crime and what could be done to try to rehabilitate. I loved it.”

Sheila said the nature of the job was less adversarial and more like social work, which is something that is near to her heart.

In 2004, she was appointed to be a Juvenile Court Magistrate by Judge Betty Adam Green.

“When she retired early before her term was up I thought, ‘Hey I could be the judge,’” she said. “So when it was time to run for her position I put my name in a hat. There were two of us that ran, and I was fortunate enough to be selected by the voters to be the next Davidson County Juvenile Court Judge.”


Sheila has been the juvenile judge since September 2014.

“Since then it’s been super busy, and super fun. I’m constantly on the go and being on the bench just about every day,” she said. “I am fortunate in Tennessee that I have the ability to make policies for my court on how things are going to work.”

With a staff of about 125 people, Sheila not only handles business on the bench but she is also an administrator as well.

“I love it and wouldn’t change it for the world, but it’s a lot,” she said. “I’ve had a chance to revamp the way we do our processes to take a more in-depth look on the front end.”

Sheila said previously, the effort was “Band-Aid” work. For instance, she said if a kid came in because he or she stole a car, the court would not necessarily delve into why he or she took the car or what was going on in their circumstance and only give him or her services like taking a taking a class and tell them not to do it again.

“We decided to change that. Whatever child comes in front of us no matter what their issue is, we’re going to figure out the root cause. Once we do that, then we can make some changes on how to proceed further.”

Sheila said the court started an assessment team in early 2015 and said the results she’s seen have been tremendous.

She said, unfortunately, it’s too early in the assessment to have real numbers on recidivism, but said anecdotally her team has seen changes in people and changes in the way that they are cooperating with the court.

“Families really want to work with us,” she said. “Before they saw the court system as the enemy and didn’t want to come down to talk with us. Now, we have more families that are willing to open up and help us figure out what they need.”

Sheila said her favorite thing about working with the law is having the ability to work with people on bettering themselves.

“Everyone should have the same opportunities and abilities to succeed. I was fortunate to have a good hand dealt to me with a supportive family who understood the need for education and good health,” she said. “I just want everyone else to have the same thing. It’s only fair. When others don’t have it, we need to help bring them to that point.”

Sheila said the most difficult times are when she has the ultimate decision on cases when a young person must be charged as an adult because of the severity of the crime and terminating a parent’s right. She said in both cases, they are life-changing events and the youth will never be the same.


 “It’s crazy to see the evolution of the change in Nashville, and it’s exciting to be a part of it.”

Sheila said she’s impressed with the fact that as the city has grown the crime rate, in proportion, has not. She said it makes her job harder to make sure the crime rates don’t rise, but she’s okay with that.

“It’s a good thing,” she said of the steady rates. “It means that we, as a community, are doing well of taking care of one another.”

When Sheila thinks about a community, she thinks about everyone playing their part in the area.

“Everyone from the guy that sleeps under the Woodland Street Bridge to the head of HCA, everyone is a part of the same community. And we all have a responsibility to one another to make it a great community.”

As the juvenile court judge, she said she can positively affect the way our community treats our youth.

“Being a judge doesn’t mean just hearing cases, it means educating the community on the good things and the bad things that our children are going through. It’s my role to make sure we are empowering the community to do a better job of taking care of all of our children,” she said.

Sheila said empowerment comes from education and learning and that people become more empowered when they understand the youth’s minds and what happens once teens grow up, especially the brain science behind it.

“There’s a reason we act crazy when we’re 13 – our brains are not quite developed. It’s the same thing when we’re 16 or 18,” she said.  “When we see a 13-year-old making an impulsive decision, it’s important that we don’t immediately fall to blame or punishment, that we work with that child and help them understand what good decision making is.”

Sheila said students’ recent decision to protest at Antioch High School by walking out of class was well thought out and planned and shows how strong the youth can be.

“We have a good core group of wonderful, intelligent, on-fire youth that are ready to change this world,” she said. “All they need is a little more development, a little more urging and confidence ability and they’re going to do great.”

Sheila said as Nashville continues to grow she has concerns about poverty around the city.

“Money is an issue and poverty is real, and we have a lot of poverty in Nashville. As we continue to grow, the poverty rate and the poverty divide is going to continue. Both contribute to unhealthiness, which can then lead to violence,” she said. “We have to be aware of poverty divides and what that can do as a community for the whole. We have to be cautious that as we grow that we’re giving everyone the ability to grow and have access to affordable housing, health care and a good quality education. It’s a difficult balance.”

Beyond the bench, Sheila said she wants to change the age of majority from 18 to 25 on a national level for all the court systems.

Sheila’s term is up in 2022, and she is more than likely going to run for another term.

“Right now, most courts say anything that you do as way of crime once you’re 18 is considered a crime as an adult. However, the brain science says that your mind is not fully developed until you’re over 25,” she said. “The largest majority of people incarcerated in Tennessee and most states are between 18 and 30 years old. You have a good amount of people 18 to 25 who are not making good decision because they cannot yet, and I don’t think we should be treating them the same way that we treat adults.”

Sheila said incarcerating young people based on impulsive decisions they’re making takes away their ability to work, their housing ability, and their ability to be good citizens.

Sheila spoke at this year’s TEDxNashville event. Be on the look out for the video of her talk at TEDxNashville.com.

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