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VOL. 127 | NO. 215 | Friday, November 02, 2012

Juvenile Court Reform Details Emerging

By Bill Dries

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Memphis-Shelby County Juvenile Court Chief Administrative Officer Larry Scroggs describes the court as being “sort of at the end of the beginning” in a review process by the U.S. Justice Department.

And after this summer’s scathing report from the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division of the court’s due process practices, Scroggs told those at a public hearing this week that the plan for systemic changes at the court will likely be a three- to five-year process.

Still to come is a settlement agreement court officials and Justice Department officials will sign off on as an alternative to the department suing Juvenile Court to remedy the problems it found.

Attorneys for Juvenile Court and Shelby County government are working on a draft submitted recently by Justice Department attorneys.

Justice Department attorney Winsome Gayle said federal officials have several non-negotiable items including “independent oversight” of the court and specific standards for new due process guidelines for how juvenile offenders are represented.

Gayle was the first attorney from the Civil Rights Division in Memphis when the Justice Department investigation of the court began in 2009.

“We need to ensure that the findings we made in respect to due process, equal protection and facilities – that the reforms that are put in place will address those findings,” she said. “I think the Juvenile Court and the county have been receptive to that stance.”

Scroggs referred to the court’s stance as “a journey willingly taken.”

The report was highly critical of a court system in which the Justice Department concluded attorneys for children worked too closely with the court and weren’t adversarial enough in representing their clients.

And the report concluded black teenagers were transferred for trial as adults and detained by the court in disproportionate numbers.

“We’re specifically outlining what it takes to have a constitutionally adequate probable cause hearing,” Gayle said. “Same thing with transfer hearings.”

That will involve monitoring of how cases are handled by the magistrates that hear many cases along with Juvenile Court Judge Curtis Person Jr. The report concluded some of the magistrates ignored basic due process guarantees including notifications of parents and attorneys of the precise offenses their children were charged with.

And Gayle said a move to representation of teenagers whose parents can’t afford private legal counsel by the Shelby County Public Defender’s office won’t mean doing away with the panel now in place for the appointment of attorneys.

All sides are talking about a defender’s office that would have a juvenile justice section.

The office will need more state funding to take on a workload that also requires a specific expertise in juvenile justice as well as more attorneys. Gayle acknowledged what Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell has repeatedly said since the release of the Justice Department report in May.

Even with more funding, more expertise and a separate unit, there will be cases where the defender’s office can’t be used as appointed counsel for every indigent juvenile client.

“There needs to be a panel because the public defender’s office and the new juvenile offender unit cannot possibly take all of the cases,” Gayle said. “There will be cases where there are conflicts. There will be cases where their workload will be too much. So it will be easier to have an overflow panel.”

But the Justice Department is insisting that the panel be much more independent of the court than it is now “where the attorneys are free to challenge the magistrate and the judge’s decision as to whether or not a child is found delinquent,” Gayle said.

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