The two contenders for Shelby County District Attorney General on the Aug. 2 ballot offered different takes on Juvenile Court reforms Monday, June 18, at a League of Women Voters forum.
Republican incumbent Amy Weirich and Democratic challenger Carol Chumney were asked about the recent review of Memphis Shelby County Juvenile Court by the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Justice Department.
The review covering several years was critical of basic court practices and found some constitutional violations as well as prosecutors unclear on precise charges. The report also concluded black juveniles are disproportionately transferred for trial as adults more than white juveniles and face harsher treatment by the court.
“Clearly these are issues that need to be dealt with. They are not new,” Chumney said. “There were some studies before that had similar findings. Apparently the problem is still going on. As district attorney I will make sure prosecutors follow the Constitution and the laws of Tennessee.”
But the Justice Department report points out that federal constitutional standards and state law and judicial standards are sometimes in conflict, particularly on the issue of whether juveniles can be held 72 hours without a hearing as state standards have been for years or for 48 hours as Justice Department attorneys believe. The court is in the process of moving to the 48-hour standard including hearings on weekends and holidays.
On several other measures, the Justice Department acknowledged the court was already moving toward reforms before the report was issued in May.
“What is frustrating as a prosecutor of 21 years is that nowhere in that report does anyone mention the victims,” Weirich said. “For every juvenile defendant that we deal with, there is a victim who has been hurt, who has been killed, who has been robbed or whatever the situation may be.”
Weirich is among those conferring with Justice Department officials on a remedy to the problems in the report.
“Prosecutors don’t fill out police tickets. Those are all functions of the police department and that information was not being given to prosecutors,” Weirich told the audience of more than 100 at the Benjamin L. Hooks Central Library. “We’re addressing those issues. … In fact, we have a much more aggressive plan than the Department of Justice even asked us to accomplish.”
At another point in the debate in which both candidates answered the same written questions from an audience that included partisans from both camps, Chumney complained that the prosecutor’s office hasn’t issued an annual report in several years.
“Enforcement of the law is job one of the district attorney general’s office, not annual reports,” Weirich responded later, saying the most recent report will be posted online soon. “Our prosecutors tried 200 jury trials, which is more than have ever been tried in the DA’s office.”
Chumney cited legislation she helped pass during a career as a state representative and her work as a Memphis City Council member on city ordinances. She also told of representing a client charged with a crime under the anti-stalking legislation she helped pass in the Tennessee Legislature when asked to cite her three most significant criminal trials.
“It was a really interesting case and I learned a lot about stalking that I didn’t know when I was a legislator,” Chumney said. “I learned it all from the other side and enjoyed the process.”
Weirich cited her experience as a prosecutor in 130 jury trials over 20 years including death penalty and child abuse cases before becoming district attorney general.
Both candidates endorsed the use of state nuisance laws to close businesses and homes that are a harbor for crimes and blight.
Chumney and Weirich each pointed out the District Attorney General’s office has no role in the formation of a “red light” district for strip clubs proposed recently by Memphis City Council member Shea Flinn.
“That’s not going to cut down on the crimes committed in those clubs,” added Weirich, who as a prosecutor was involved in filing nuisance actions against the clubs. “That industry creates crime and creates dysfunction in our community.”
Chumney acknowledged debating such a proposal when she served on the City Council.
“That’s before the City Council right now,” she said.
Weirich and Chumney are running for the two years left in the eight-year term of office of Bill Gibbons who was appointed last year as state commissioner of safety and homeland security. Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam appointed Weirich to fill the vacancy pending the certification of election results in the race on the Aug. 2 ballot.
Early voting in that race and other general election and primary races begins July 13.