The U.S. Justice Department announced Tuesday, Dec. 18, an agreement with Memphis-Shelby County Juvenile Court that will put the Shelby County Public Defenders office in the role of defending juveniles who cannot afford to hire an attorney for court proceedings.
But as the agreement was announced, it was unclear how the major shift in court operations would be funded.
The agreement also sets up strict procedures for the appointment of such legal counsel before probable cause or transfer hearings and better documentation of how court decisions are made.
Assistant U.S. Attorney General Thomas E. Perez, who heads the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, termed the agreement a “first-of-its-kind agreement” and said it “reflects a powerful commitment to upholding constitutional rights of all children appearing before the Juvenile Court.”
U.S. Attorney Ed Stanton said the agreement is “unprecedented” and represents “a collaborative effort to ensure that all children in Shelby County receive the full protections provided under our constitution.”
But as Perez announced the agreement with Juvenile Court, questions remained about how the reforms the Justice Department called for in a scathing report released in April will be paid for.
As preparations for the conference call and announcement of the terms were being made Monday, Dec. 18, Shelby County Commissioners were conferring with their attorneys, apparently unaware of the coming announcement.
The commission must approve any county funding for the measures.
Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell has been lobbying state officials in Nashville in particular for state funding to get the Public Defenders Office in the business of representing juvenile defendants with a “dedicated juvenile defender unit.”
The public defenders are not part of Juvenile Court. Expanding the office, which now represents adult defendants exclusively, is more than adding attorneys to the office. It will involve hiring attorneys who have specific expertise in representing juveniles before a court that has different legal standards, as well as representing juveniles who are transferred for trial as adults.
Attorneys for juveniles have been appointed by the court from a panel, a practice the Justice Department specifically criticized as creating a conflict of interest and not being independent enough of the court.
The report also noted instances in which hearings were held without notice or defendants and their parents knowing precisely what they are charged with. Justice Department investigators also concluded that defense attorney were not always zealous enough in behalf of their clients because of their connections to Juvenile Court.
It even questioned the legal knowledge of some Juvenile Court magistrates.
The agreement announced Tuesday includes specific procedural safeguards to cover those concerns, including written findings in all cases where juveniles are transferred for trial as adults.
The April report also concluded black children were disproportionately given harsher treatment, including being transferred for trial as adults.
A coordinator will be hired to monitor what is termed “disproportionate minority contact”
Detention for juvenile defendants for any reason other than public safety or to guarantee they will make future court appearances would be barred.
And Juvenile Court is to establish a pilot program that involves letting police officers call the court and “get guidance on whether the child should be immediately released and provided with an appearance summons or transported to Juvenile Court.”
The court and the Justice Department have been negotiating terms of an agreement since the release of the report in April. If the agreement can’t be consummated, the alternative would be the Justice Department filing a federal lawsuit against Juvenile Court alleging violations of the U.S. Constitution.