City Court Judge Tarik Sugarmon told supporters Memphis-Shelby County Juvenile Court is “administratively top-heavy” and too expensive to operate as it currently is.
“We are going to make a change to a 50-year continuum of Juvenile Court,” Sugarmon told supporters at the Shelby County Election Commission last week as he filed his qualifying petition to run in the August election for Juvenile Court judge. “We’re going to reverse this trend. We are going to change this court.”
Sugarmon, who is administrative judge of the municipal court system, will face Juvenile Court Chief Magistrate Dan Michael in the nonpartisan race for the position, now held by outgoing Judge Curtis Person.
Person had been a magistrate under Juvenile Court Judge Kenneth Turner, who held the position from the early 1960s until Person was elected in 2006.
Sugarmon was appointed a Memphis City Court judge in 1998 and has been re-elected to two full terms.
He is making an issue of due process problems in Juvenile Court and disproportionately harsher punishments as well as the number of African-American youths transferred to be tried as adults, which was documented in an extensive U.S. Justice Department report in April 2012.
The report led to a settlement among the Justice Department, the court and Shelby County government that set out reforms as well as milestones for meeting those reforms and a cost to the county of $6 million a year.
“We’re still having issues with kids giving statements without representation, without their parents being present, also giving waivers to Miranda rights that they don’t understand,” Sugarmon said. “I am going to be aggressive in addressing these reforms and pushing them forward. And once we do that, I’m going to ask the monitors based upon performance to release us from that mandate.”
Michael has said he is pursuing the reforms as chief magistrate and that his experience as part of the court makes him able to carry out the reforms.
But Sugarmon said Michael’s experience makes him part of an entrenched system.
“He’s been part of the court. But he’s also been part of the problem,” he said of Michael. “My position is this: If you are in a train and all Shelby Countians are on it, and they’ve driven – the current system – has driven that train off the track, you don’t put the same crew back in there to run the train.”
Sugarmon said too many administrative jobs at the court go to relatives and vowed to conduct a job audit if elected to “return an economy of scale to the Juvenile Court system and put some of those resources back into helping those kids.”
“Appointments are going to be based on need,” he added. “Appointments are going to be based on ability.”
Sugarmon’s father, retired Circuit Court Judge and civil rights icon Russell Sugarmon, was also present for the campaign opening last week. As a child, the younger Sugarmon was part of the local civil rights movement, along with his father, during the 1960s.
The race for Juvenile Court judge is one of only two countywide races on the ballot in August in which an incumbent is not seeking re-election. The other office is Criminal Court clerk, which is a partisan race with primaries in May.
Although the Juvenile Court race is nonpartisan, the leaders of both local parties have said they will be involved – with Democratic Party leaders supporting Sugarmon, and Republican Party leaders supporting Michael.
Sugarmon said the race is one of several that will focus on the current criminal justice system and whether it needs to change.
“I think the voters this year are really engaged in this issue,” he added, noting judges on the August ballot are elected to eight-year terms. “We affect everything that affects your life. Before you come into this world, a judge can affect you. When you go out of this world, a judge can still affect you. They affect your money. They can take your children. They can put them back. They can restore justice to you.”