It is not the luck of the draw that the two major funding challenges for Shelby County government in the coming budget season involve the development of our young people.
In the fiscal year that begins July 1, the county budget becomes the sole source of local government funding for the consolidated school system and in that same budget must be found the additional dollars for a restructuring of Memphis-Shelby County Juvenile Court.
The combination of these two events could be just the push needed to prompt a third major political development – a restructuring of what county government does and does not do.
But to stay on point, this should be about the priorities that have always been staring us in the face. They take time and money and the results we want won’t show up overnight. But they will have a lasting impact that gets closer to the root cause of an enduring crime problem.
Juvenile Court, fortunately, has a bit of a head start working with the Casey Foundation on alternatives to detention for several years before the U.S. Justice Department findings late last year and the settlement that was signed a month later.
Those initiatives mean the court has far fewer children in detention than it once did.
There will always be the need for secure detention for some juveniles. Let us not minimize the serious problems some of our young people have.
But the practice of locking up children because we don’t know what else to do with them or don’t have the resources to begin to help them had to end.
For those in detention, medical and mental health services are essential.
And this reformation of juvenile justice in Shelby County must have the additional state funding needed to provide adequate legal counsel through a new juvenile section of the Shelby County Public Defender’s office.
The office has already seen its state funding drop in the last 20 years. This is a matter of state funding that is due the state’s most populous county based on the percentage of the state’s total public defender caseload.
Funding at the current level does not bode well for Juvenile Court reforms that are a model for other jurisdictions in the state.
As it undertakes the defense of most of the children brought to Juvenile Court, the defender office should have the funding it needs to work with the court as an advocate for juveniles to seek the best solution possible for the safety of society and the salvageable future of these children.
There is a way to protect the rights of children and work with the court on a solution that will recognize our legal system for juveniles puts a premium on guidance for those who have lost their way.
The court’s work can be a foothold to long-term changes in the city’s historic problem with crime and violence.