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VOL. 127 | NO. 92 | Thursday, May 10, 2012

Big Changes Lie Ahead for Local Juvenile Court

By Bill Dries

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In the run-up to this month’s U.S. Justice Department report on Memphis-Shelby County Juvenile Court, the most animated discussions between the attorneys from the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division and those at Juvenile Court were about state law.

“We knew that their focus was on due process,” said Juvenile Court Chief Administrative Officer and Chief Counsel Larry Scroggs. “We knew they had concerned with Tennessee law. They did not like the 72-hour time frame for detention hearings, which is allowed under Tennessee juvenile law as well as the juvenile procedural rules. They preferred 48 hours regardless of holidays and weekends.”

When the Justice Department team returns to the city next month, it will find a court system that was already making changes in how long juveniles were detained and which in recent years has dramatically cut the number of juveniles who are both detained and transferred to the adult criminal justice system for trial.

The Justice Department’s report recognized those changes. But it also concluded the court could and must do more.

The mixture of praise for Person and sometimes scathing specific criticism of a system he took over from a predecessor who served 40 years reflects a court that has often considered itself a model. The Justice Department says it can be a model.

Scroggs said the court is not quarreling with the criticism. But it is pointing out that making all of the recommended changes will likely take years. And it will require changes by others who approve both funding as well as make the laws that govern things like the time from arrest to a detention hearing.

The “long discussions” on due process included Justice Department beliefs that Tennessee laws on the time period are in conflict with the U.S. Constitution.

It’s hard for us to be the initiator of the changes perhaps of the magnitude they would like.

–Larry Scroggs
Juvenile Court Chief Administrative Officer and Chief Counsel

Scroggs said the discussions could eventually involve the Tennessee Attorney General’s office. And he added the nature of the discussions and the actions have implications for juvenile justice well beyond Memphis.

“Most states follow the same kind of general procedure we do on the timing of juvenile hearings,” said Scroggs, who is a former state representative as well as attorney.

“It’s hard for one juvenile court to be the promoter. We can be a supporter. But it’s hard for us to be the initiator of the changes perhaps of the magnitude they would like. At some point, the state has to be engaged in the process.”

The review of Juvenile Court took two and a half years and what comes next is likely to be the biggest reorganization of the court since the two separate city and county juvenile courts were consolidated in the 1960s.

The changes began in 2006 when Curtis Person Jr. was elected to succeed Kenneth Turner, the Juvenile Court Judge since 1964. Person had worked in the court as a referee or magistrate under Turner’s unique system. The magistrates were necessary because Turner was not an attorney.

As those changes continue to unfold with help and technical assistance from the Justice Department as well as juvenile justice consultants and foundations used in the investigation, Scroggs said the court will work with federal officials to come up with a memorandum of understanding to guide the course ahead for the court.

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