Time for Court To Get it Right

Monday, May 14, 2012, Vol. 127, No. 94

You have probably heard the phrase “going forward” used a lot. And the temptation is great to use it again in the case of the recent report on Memphis-Shelby County Juvenile Court by the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Justice Department.

That should not be the case if progress is to be made in improving on a system that until recently had become calcified in the juvenile justice philosophy of an earlier age and a judge who made the court his own for 40 years.

Juvenile Court Judge Curtis Person Jr. got credit in the report for changes made at Juvenile Court since his election in 2006, succeeding Judge Kenneth Turner. But Person denied an alarming racial disparity in both detention rates and transfers of juveniles to the adult criminal justice system for trial as adults. The report outlines the methodology for the claim that makes it more than a statement of opinion or possibility.

The court will be getting a lot of outside help as a result of the report.

And this is where it becomes convenient to say “going forward.”

But that shouldn’t happen because of another part of the report that concludes many Juvenile Court employees have “a fundamental misunderstanding about the purpose of Juvenile Court and the roles and responsibilities of its participants.”

There should be a clear break from the invalidated traditions and practices of the Turner court to remedy this – a reality check.

First, create an office of Juvenile Defender outside Juvenile Court, a move first suggested five years ago in the first of three other reports on the court. This doesn’t have to be difficult, but it likely will because for too long the court’s instinct has been to cede no part of its apparatus to any other government entity.

The court had to be taken to another court for the popular election of the Juvenile Court Clerk and Bill Gibbons when he was District Attorney General had to walk on eggshells in moving the office of Juvenile prosecutor from the court’s control.

The court is part of a criminal justice system that the public has a right to expect will involve government agencies and entities working together for a public interest that has no room for the preservation of turf.

In that spirit, this will take changes in other areas as well. The Shelby County Public Defender’s office will need more funding to take on new responsibilities in a court system in which 90 percent of those before the court have appointed legal counsel.

The state should also restore programs the court could once use as an alternative to sending children to an adult system that has next to no chances to intervene in a teenager’s life the way a truly functioning juvenile justice system can and should.