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VOL. 125 | NO. 135 | Wednesday, July 14, 2010

New Policy Set for Police Handling of Juveniles

By Bill Dries

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Memphis Police got new written orders last week that gives them broader discretion in dealing with juveniles.

The policy put in writing by Police Director Larry Godwin and announced this week by Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. comes after several years of discussion and concern about the number of juvenile offenders who are sent to detention.

“It is the practice of the Memphis Police Department and Juvenile Court to issue a juvenile summons in lieu of arrest when permitted by policy or law,” reads the July 7 memo to all police personnel from Godwin. “A juvenile summons may be issued for any misdemeanor offense and for felonies involving property crimes, where no further investigation is necessary.”

There are seven offenses in which writing a ticket is strongly encouraged: disorderly conduct, theft of property under $500, criminal trespass, vandalism under $500, assault, gambling and simple possession of marijuana.

“If you’re an adult and you’re caught on simple possession of marijuana, it’s the same thing,” Godwin said. “We write a summons.”

Wharton said the policy addresses an old police adage he heard in his days as a defense attorney and public defender.

“They would tell a kid you might beat the rap, but you won’t beat the ride,” he recalled.

“Unfortunately, the ride into Juvenile Court often emboldened the child. In other words, they become a hero. Right there in front of their friends they are placed in the back of a squad car and then the next morning they are back out again. You’ve elevated them to hero status.”

Juvenile Court Judge Curtis Person Jr. said the number of juveniles sent to detention after arriving at the court has been dropping for several years. He credits an assessment process the court has been using for some time.

Of 7,532 juveniles taken to Juvenile Court of Memphis & Shelby County by law enforcement in 2009, Person said only 10 percent were detained after the evaluation.

Wharton, Godwin and Person all stressed that the juveniles would still have to come to court and that violent juveniles would be detained.

The decision to write a summons is also called an “adjustment” by critics as well as supporters of the policy.

The Rev. Dwight Montgomery, one of several Baptist ministers who have agreed to form a network to guarantee the court appearance of the juveniles given a summons, remembers informal adjustments in his youth. In those cases, police simply took a juvenile home and never did any paperwork.

The Rev. Keith Norman said the paperwork accompanied by a stay in juvenile detention can make it harder to get a job when the juvenile becomes an adult.

“Once an employer sees that it’s almost like lights out – no opportunity,” he told The Daily News. “Kids will just cop out. They’ll just say whatever they need to do to end the process. But they don’t recognize that it’s having a life-long effect. They’re not able to get a job. They’re not able to get access to college. It starts a spiral.”

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