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VOL. 122 | NO. 106 | Friday, June 08, 2007

Juvenile Court Recommendations Call for Overhaul

By Bill Dries

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Key Juvenile Court Recommendations:
The preliminary report can be found at www.shelbycountytn.gov
Replace four of the six referees with four elected judges. This would be in addition to the current Juvenile Court judge and a disputed second judge's position now in court. That makes a total of six judges.
The remaining three referees would deal exclusively with child support matters. Because of that exclusivity, state and federal government funding could pay the cost of those positions. That savings would pay for the four elected judges.
Remove the juvenile defender, chief probation officer and Juvenile Detention Center from Juvenile Court. The defender would become part of the Public Defender's office. The report cites two county attorney legal opinions and a Tennessee Attorney General legal opinion.
Have the state Department of Human Services study at state expense child support operations to include turning such operations over to the state.
Do away with the policy of taking away the driver's licenses of those who are overdue in paying child support and in contempt of court orders.
Adopt a county-wide diversion program for juveniles.

The possibility of a second Juvenile Court judge for Shelby County is an issue other judges in other courts will decide.

The high-profile change is but the most basic of several recommended by a County Commission committee. The ad hoc committee has been reviewing court operations since September, when many of its members and Juvenile Court Judge Curtis Person took office. Its discussion has been just as spirited as the public back-and-forth with Person.

The preliminary report, issued in May, outlines numerous suggested changes in the way the court conducts its business. A first draft of another report by the National Center for State Courts is due this month.

"It is dramatic. And I think what everybody has to understand is that we understand that it's a long-term prospect," said Commissioner Mike Carpenter, chairman of the ad hoc committee. "You might view it as a strategic plan for the court and that it's something that's going to take place over multiple years."


Power play, downplay

The recommendations include taking the juvenile defender, chief probation officer and Juvenile Detention Center out of the control of the Juvenile Court judge.

The report also recommends four more elected Juvenile Court judges in addition to the current one and the disputed judge's position now being argued in court.

There would be fewer referees and several would be assigned to hear nothing but child support matters.

Carpenter, the only Republican commissioner to vote with the seven Democratic commissioners for the second judge's position, acknowledges that many of the changes require the cooperation of the court.

"To be very honest about it, that's part of the reason that it's so important to appoint this second judge," he said. "There has to be a change of philosophy in the court for most of these things to happen.

"But we have two things - the budget and the bully pulpit."

Another Juvenile Court judge would cause "chaos," Person has said in several public forums, including a series of luncheon speeches to civic groups.

He has argued that the Juvenile Court is different from courts with multiple divisions because of the recognized differences in the law when it comes to dealing with juveniles. Judges and referees have more discretion.

They also are responsible for coordinating court-ordered responses that go beyond time in detention.

Person has refused to meet or talk to commissioners directly, though, saying it would violate judicial ethics since the matter is being litigated.

But he's also accused some commissioners of having a political motive and not giving him a chance to make changes since he took office last September.

Commissioner Wyatt Bunker agreed.

"I think (Democrats who backed Veronica Coleman in the non-partisan 2006 race) couldn't win at the ballot box. I think they are using some provisions that I believe are legal, but I don't believe they are right," Bunker said. "But they're using that to compensate for what they couldn't win at the ballot box."


Down and dirty

Chancellor Kenny Armstrong ruled last month that the commission can authorize a second judge's position and appoint someone to serve until a special election in 2008. Armstrong then stayed the ruling to allow for the appeal that whoever lost was expected to make.

In recent weeks, Person also has criticized the ad hoc committee's report as being a continuation of a politically motivated attack.

Carpenter denied a political motive in the recommendations.

"The recommendations I've made and the recommendations other commissioners have made are defensible," he said. "Other courts are doing the kind of things we recommend. These aren't just things we made up. These are things that other courts actually do and do well."

Commissioner Henri Brooks repeatedly criticized a lack of black employees in positions of real authority. She also questioned the "cultural competency" of court counselors who deal with black teenagers.

A former court employee, Brooks likened the court to a "plantation" and called it an evil system.

Commissioners Sidney Chism and Deidre Malone, who proposed the second judge's position, haven't gone that far. But they have been critical of what they see as a system that is racially insensitive and biased at times.

Person's administrators have vigorously denied those points repeatedly at the months of committee hearings.


Thy kingdom come

Commissioner David Lillard joined Bunker in voting against a second judge but has called for some of the recommended changes.

"If you have the money, there are any number of changes that could be made," Lillard said. "They need a state of the art FedEx-type Web site, where citizens who have cases pending can look up their case.

"They also need a state of the art call center. One of the biggest things we heard in public (hearings) was (callers) can't get anybody on the phone and they can't get any answers."

Critics who accuse Person of preserving retired Juvenile Court Judge Kenneth Turner's system aren't being realistic about the difference between being the judge and working for the judge, Lillard said.

The report warns that the centralized court system with a defender, chief probation officer and detention center all under one elected official invites appearances of political patronage.

"I don't think it exists, if it does at all, to any greater degree than it does with any other elected official in county government," he said.

But Lillard does believe moving the defender's office to the separate county-wide Public Defender's Office is necessary as was an earlier decision to move prosecutors from the court to the Shelby County District Attorney General's office to avoid even the appearance of a conflict of interest.

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