VOL. 127 | NO. 83 | Friday, April 27, 2012
Discrimination Found in Juvenile Court
By Bill Dries
The U.S. Justice Department said Thursday, April 26, that juvenile offenders in Shelby County are denied due process rights and that black children are treated differently and more harshly than white children by the Juvenile Court of Memphis and Shelby County, including the process used to transfer children who are to be tried as adults.
The investigation by the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division began in August 2009 and included the review of 66,000 case files from a five-year period.
It concluded the local juvenile detention center “violates the substantive due process rights of detained youth by not providing them with reasonably safe conditions of confinement.”
The report was made public Thursday, the day after Juvenile Court Judge Curtis Person was notified of the findings in the 68-page report.
Ed Stanton, the U.S. attorney for the Western District of Tennessee, and Thomas E. Perez, the assistant attorney general for the civil rights division, emphasized that Person cooperated fully in the investigation that spanned several years and is already implementing reforms called for in the report.
“Notwithstanding the progress we observed in a number of areas, we found serious and systemic failures in the juvenile justice system in Memphis and Shelby County that violate the constitutional rights of children appearing before the court,” Perez said.
Stanton termed the conclusions in the report “serious and compelling.”
“Our bottom line is ensuring that we have a model juvenile justice system here in Memphis and Shelby County,” Stanton said. “Our central objective is to ensure that our juvenile justice system works.”
The due process violations included failing to notify children and their parents of charges in advance of hearings and sending children to detention when they were arrested on weekends or holidays without warrants because hearings weren’t held on those days.
“What this means is children experience needlessly lengthy detentions before a magistrate will conduct a hearing to determine whether there was probable cause for their arrest,” Perez said as he noted “repeated failures” to protect children from constitutional guarantees against self incrimination.
While those failures applied to all children, the Justice Department report said there was a verifiable and noticeable difference in how black children have been treated by the court.
“We found that African-American children were treated differently and more harshly during key points in the juvenile justice process,” Perez said, noting that a recognized national expert reviewed Juvenile Court data over a five-year period on the specific point. “In key phases, we found that race was in and of itself a significant contributing factor even after accounting for legal variables such as the nature of the charge, prior record and variables such as the age of the defendant or gender or school attendance. Race was a statistically significant factor in determining whether a child would receive lenient treatment such as a warning or a more serious sanction.”
The decisions to transfer children for trial as adults was also found lacking. The Justice Department report concluded Juvenile Court referees made those decisions “after making cursory or no inquiries into the children’s background or social factors, which are required by the state’s law,” Perez said.
In some cases, the court didn’t have a hearing at all on the matters that determine whether a child will be tried as an adult.
The investigation began as members of the Shelby County Commission sought unsuccessfully to replace the court’s system of one judge with referees appointed to hear cases by the judge with multiple elected judges.
The commission also questioned whether African-American juveniles were treated differently as part of the discussion surrounding the changes some wanted to see in Juvenile Court operation.
Person acted quickly to apply the practice on a countywide basis, and Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. followed up in 2010 with a broader use of the practice of issuing summons instead of detention for some juvenile offenses.
The report does not recommend or seek sanctions or take court action against Juvenile Court.