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VOL. 130 | NO. 232 | Monday, November 30, 2015

Juvenile Court Reforms Changing System Slowly, Leaders Say

By Bill Dries

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Two years into reforms of the local juvenile justice system, three leaders in those reforms say there has to be more contact with teenagers before and after they go through Juvenile Court.

And those leaders warn against a reliance on programs once a child is in custody as a total solution to juvenile crime.


“The real effort long term has to be geared toward prevention, toward stopping the school-to-jail pipeline,” Shelby County Public Defender chief Stephen Bush said on the WKNO-TV program “Behind The Headlines.” “This is going to require every part of our community to step forward and create the right pieces.”

Behind The Headlines is hosted by The Daily News publisher Eric Barnes.

Bush’s office defends children who are brought to Memphis-Shelby County Juvenile Court; it’s one of the court reforms required by a settlement between the U.S. Department of Justice and Shelby County government, which followed a scathing report on the court’s practices.

It was the first DOJ intervention in a local juvenile court. Prior to the reforms, the defense attorneys were court employees.

The JIFF program – Juvenile Intervention and Faith-Based Follow-Up – has been working with juvenile offenders since 2003; case mentors are assigned to children for a 16-week program.


“The longer we can hang on to a child, the longer they mature. They start to figure it out,” said Richard Graham, executive director of JIFF. “A lot of them know that gangs are not the answer, but they are not sure what the alternative is. Programs are great. But programs pass.”

Graham says there has to be that kind of contact after the program ends to keep pushing the teenagers toward the alternative.

The program takes in an average of 100 children a year who are 12 to 18 years old. The average age of a child in JIFF is 15.


Shelby County commissioner Mark Billingsley has talked with teenagers in the program and admits he had some preconceived notions about what they would want.

“They said, ‘The most important thing you can do for me is a job,’” he recalled. “There are kids that want to fight their way out of their neighborhoods. When a 15-year old kid says, ‘Help me get a job,’ – that’s where we need to be spending our money in my opinion.”

Bush said that’s another indicator that the city’s historically high levels of poverty are the underlying force in juvenile crime.

“The vast majority of the kids that are hitting the system are just kids. This is normal adolescent behavior that over time brings them into contact with this,” he said. “One thing we do know that we have learned in the last couple of years – these kids for the most part are incredibly poor. They are growing up in incredibly dire circumstances. They and their families face enormous challenges.”

For the children, those challenges spike if they enter the juvenile justice system.

Detention levels in the local juvenile justice system were dropping by the time the Justice Department report concluded that too many teenagers were finding their way into the juvenile court system. And a goal of the reforms is to drop the numbers even lower.

“There is a way to respond to kids that are getting into trouble and to hold them accountable in ways that are developmentally appropriate,” Bush said. “We have to do things that are smart when kids hit the system so that we don’t make things worse. Let’s be clear. Hitting the system is not good for people. The research is not promising. If you are in detention, the future is bleak.”

Bush said the path to detention isn’t fixed yet but that Juvenile Court is making “great strides.”

“I don’t think we’ve turned it around,” he added. “But I am hopeful.”

Billingsley acknowledges some push back from constituents who argue the answer to juvenile crime is more detention.

“I’m not forgiving on violent crime but some of these kids that we are talking about today go home, who want to be on the right track, but may go home to two parents who are gang members,” he said. “Sometimes I have to talk about that issue to convince some of my conservative constituents, ‘Do you really want to live in city that potentially will lose more and more jobs if you don’t address this systemic issue?’”

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