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VOL. 127 | NO. 85 | Tuesday, May 1, 2012

DOJ: ‘Fundamental Misunderstanding’ Exists In Local Juvenile Court

By Bill Dries

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Juvenile Court Report

The U.S. Justice Department report critical of Memphis-Shelby County Juvenile Court released last week is the fourth since May 2007 on court operations.

It is also the fourth to note the need for change in the court that has only had two judges since the merger of the city and county juvenile courts in the 1960s.

It is the first of the four to make specific conclusions about the culture of the court.

The report by the Civil Rights Division concluded that many of those involved with and working in the local juvenile justice system have “a fundamental misunderstanding about the purpose of juvenile court and the roles and responsibilities of its participants.”

The Justice Department also found resistance among them “to the idea that (Juvenile Court) would be stronger overall with a more adversarial system.” And it noted “a court culture that frequently discourages an adversarial testing of facts for children and misinterprets the proper role of defense counsel.”

When he was Shelby County’s district attorney general, Bill Gibbons made the position of Juvenile Court prosecutor a part of his office, changing the custom of having that person appointed by the Juvenile Court judge.

The Justice Department says the position of juvenile defender should also be removed from appointment by the judge and possibly become part of the Shelby County Public Defender’s office.

The Shelby County Commission’s ad hoc group recommended the change in its 2007 report. So did a report later that year by the National Center for State Courts.

Juvenile Court Judge Curtis Person, in office at the time for less than a year, said he was willing to consider a move of the defender’s position. But he argued the second report didn’t say there was a conflict of interest, only a perception of a conflict of interest.

Person was elected Juvenile Court judge in 2006, succeeding Kenneth Turner, who became Juvenile Court judge in the early 1960s.

Person was a referee in Juvenile Court during Turner’s tenure. Because Turner was not an attorney, he appointed attorneys to hear cases as referees. Person has retained that system but also hears cases.

He is praised in the Justice Department report for cooperating and moving the needle on some of the statistics cited in a study of 66,000 case files over a five-year period. But the report was critical of the court’s culture without any improvement being noted.

The DOJ report cited ongoing concerns about the role of juvenile defenders.

The report cites two examples of hearings in which the prosecutor and defense attorney were debating detention for a child without knowing what the charge against the juvenile was. In one of the examples, the two sides debated whether the child would be held or released because of an assault. There was no assault charged in the case.

Another major finding was inadequate and in some cases no hearing for children who are charged as adults in crimes and transferred to adult prisons and jails.

The report cites the case of a teenage girl charged with murdering a 10-month old infant left in her care. The teenager’s defense attorney had witnesses prepared to testify about the girl’s history of exposure to domestic violence and previous sexual abuse. The defense also had witnesses, including a medical examiner, another doctor and two police officers on the case who were prepared to testify that the infant’s mother had a documented history of child abuse and had caused some of the injuries to the infant’s body, not the teenager.

The referee heard none of that testimony and the prosecution presented no witnesses before the referee transferred the case to criminal court.

The Civil Rights Division concluded that and other instances showed that Juvenile Court’s approach to such matters is that they “doubt the juvenile court’s ability to handle matters involving allegations of serious violent crimes.”

“While the magistrate may have arrived at the same decision after considering the requisite evidence,” the report said of the case of the teenager accused of the death of the infant, “his fundamental misunderstanding of the role of juvenile court contributed to the child’s case being transferred to criminal court, which may not have been the most appropriate forum for her accountability and rehabilitation.”

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