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VOL. 122 | NO. 158 | Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Commissioners Weigh Options For Juvenile Court

By Bill Dries

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Shelby County Commissioners meet today to debate the next move in the legal fight over a second Juvenile Court judge's position.

Some commissioners want to ask Chancellor Kenny Armstrong to lift a stay of his May ruling that the commission can create the second position and fill it until a special election is held in 2008. Armstrong sided with the commission in a lawsuit filed by Juvenile Court Judge Curtis Person Jr. But he stayed the ruling pending an appeal.

Lifting the stay would allow the commission to fill the new position as early as its next meeting. The appointee would serve until a special election can be held in 2008.

A move to lift the stay also is certain to reignite a commission debate that has been dormant for months.

Making a difference

Meanwhile, commissioners were more united Monday in their praise of a new federally funded pilot diversion program that will start in October and involves seven Memphis City Schools. It would allow school principals and police officers assigned to those schools to use what are called "station house adjustments" for minor non-violent offenses by children.

The availability of such diversion programs in Bartlett and Germantown angered some commissioners who questioned why the same opportunity wasn't made available county-wide. Person declared the programs illegal earlier this year and ordered court supervision of them before they are allowed to continue.

"I just had a problem with you having a separate system for the county and a separate system for the city," Commissioner Sidney Chism, a vocal critic of the court, told Juvenile Court officials Monday. "I just don't see any reason why we can't put this in place and make sure it works."

The pilot program is funded with $100,000 in federal money channeled through the Tennessee Commission on Children and Youth. The funds are to find approaches to deal with the disproportionate numbers of black children who are detained by juvenile authorities.

The seven schools that will participate have not been selected. If schools with high delinquency rates are picked, Court Services director Jerry Maness said the system that substitutes "cooling off" areas, parental consultations and other resources to help parents could make a significant difference.

"If you and I get into a minor scuffle, nobody's hurt. We can handle that in the school. But if somebody gets hurt, that's probably going to mean a charge of some kind," said Maness, who estimated 50 children a week during the school year come to Juvenile Court from the city school system for minor offenses with no physical contact.

"Now, there's no contact but they're charged with disorderly conduct, arrested and brought to Juvenile Court. There's a possibility we could have a reduction of the children who come formally before the court by as many as a couple of hundred a month."

However, the court's general counsel and acting chief administrative officer, Larry Scroggs, told commissioners state law would have to be changed and the program offered state-wide for it to become permanent.

Additional steps

Meanwhile, commissioners will consider next week $1.2 million in new funding for 24 new Juvenile Court employees. The employees are another step toward adopting some recommendations in a study by the National Center for State Courts (NCSC).

Commissioner Mike Carpenter said taking those and other steps will take time and patience.

"I fully expect the next three years of my term, I'll spend working to implement these reforms and getting the court's agreement and compromising with them and finding the money to pay for it," he said.

The County Commission and Juvenile Court still had differences Monday on the logistics of separating juvenile defenders from the court, the way prosecutors are seperated.

"I want it moved," Commissioner Deidre Malone told Scroggs Monday.

Scroggs said the court must retain some control over scheduling and paying court-appointed private attorneys. The chief juvenile defender now is coordinating such representation, he said, and not representing juveniles.

A shift of the function to the County Public Defender's office to avoid a conflict of interest with the court is another recommendation of the NCSC study.

The study did not deal with the legal issues in the lawsuit.

Both sides in the suit wanted the Tennessee Supreme Court to reach down and hear the case without it going through an appeals court. The Supreme Court refused and an appeal at the lower level is expected to take months, if not a year.

Commissioners are meeting as a committee of the whole today with their attorney in the matter, Leo Bearman. As a committee of the whole, commissioners could authorize Bearman to move to dissolve the stay immediately. Or, the commissioners could put off a vote on the legal move until its next regularly scheduled meeting Monday.

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