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VOL. 132 | NO. 147 | Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Juvenile Court Oversight Issue Spills Into Larger Criminal Justice Reform Debate

By Bill Dries

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U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who recently visited Memphis, hasn’t responded to a request to end Justice Department oversight of Juvenile Court. (Daily News File/Houston Cofield)

Talking Monday, July 24, about criminal justice reform, Juvenile Court Judge Dan Michael mentioned the formal written request he, Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell and Sheriff Bill Oldham made to U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions in June to end Justice Department oversight of the court.

Michael said he hadn’t heard anything from Sessions or his staff since the letter was sent.

“He’s a little busy right now,” Michael said of Sessions.

As Michael spoke Monday, Sessions was at the center of swirling rumors in Washington, D.C., about whether he might be sacked by President Donald Trump, with Trump expressing more dissatisfaction with Sessions via a tweet and an appearance at a Boy Scout jamboree in which Sessions, an Eagle Scout, was not present.

Speculation and tea leaves aside, given Sessions’ very public desire to limit such federal oversight it is still not known how he feels specifically about oversight like the 2012 memorandum of understanding among the Justice Department, the court and Shelby County government.

The message from Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland in his time with Sessions during a May visit to the city was to keep in place another Justice Department review, that of the Memphis Police Department – a collaborative review that the MPD is cooperating in.

Sessions took office as U.S. Attorney General in February. In April, the Justice Department acted on the first request from Shelby County to end federal oversight of Juvenile Court by dropping the bulk of the requirements of the memorandum.

But not all of them. It left in place what are arguably the most critical of the requirements around the issues of due process and disproportionate minority contact – issues that monitors determine whether Juvenile Court is in compliance, and they contend have not been resolved.

Michael agrees. But he differs on how much Juvenile Court can do, and specifically cites the lack of a middle ground between turning over a juvenile in trouble to a parent or guardian and putting them in juvenile detention or transferring them for trial as adults.

“My dispute is what do you want me to do about it?” Michael said of the issue of disproportionate minority contact. “How do you want me to fix it? DMC has been a federal program since 1973. There’s not one success in DMC since it was created in 1973. This is a cultural problem. The community is going to have to come together to help solve this problem.”

There are many critics of the call to end federal oversight of his court. When it comes to oversight, the issue tends to become about trust that Michael and his court will do what he says he wants to do.

Michael is a big believer in the role that “Adverse Childhood Experiences” or ACE – play in juvenile delinquency.

“Trauma is a driving factor in delinquent behavior,” he said. “When a child comes in front of me charged with a really violent offense, they didn’t wake up one morning in a beautiful world and pick up a gun and decide to go after somebody. Their life has been so traumatic that most of us wouldn’t have survived it. … This was building since the day he was born. … They don’t know any other way to respond than to fight back. It’s my job as the judge to try to break that cycle.”

But Josh Spickler with the criminal justice reform group, Just City, is among critics who argue that while the problem may be larger than the entities controlled by those who signed the 2012 memorandum, the agreement keeps attention on what the court is doing once it has children.

“I think the equal protection monitor’s report goes straight to the heart of one of the largest problems this community has. It’s anything but a distraction,” Spickler said. “It’s not about who’s referred to Juvenile Court. It’s also about the outcome those kids receive once they are there. And the report says those outcomes … are based on race.”

Michael is critical of the state, and in particular the Department of Children’s Services, where he is able to send children before adjudication for holding, in lieu of them going to a detention facility. Michael said Shelby County juveniles are treated differently than children from other parts of the state.

Last month, he said DCS send four 18-year-old juvenile offenders who were supposed to be in DCS custody until they turned 19 to the state prison system.

“If I wanted those four boys in Department of Corrections custody, I would have sent them to 201 Poplar. I wanted to rehabilitate them,” he said. “The state of Tennessee says, ‘We give up.’ Oh, come on. We’re not going to do the hard work it takes to give these young men the chance they deserve to get past their stupid behavior so they can become productive citizens.”

Meanwhile, Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton has been talking about a scaled-back youth development center under his “New Path” organization that could house a youth development center near Juvenile Court at the old city auto inspection station.

Herenton was scheduled to go before the Memphis City Council Tuesday afternoon to discuss possible use of the city-owned property. He had proposed two such facilities in Shelby County that would have been residential centers for Memphis youth who now go to the Wilder center in Somerville, away from family.

Michael said the inspection station would be a temporary facility as the Juvenile Court building, the current site of the detention center, is evaluated for possible rehabilitation work.

“It’s so completely out of date. We need a new facility,” Michael said. “(Herenton) is working to get an option on the inspection station to build a secure facility. It would be a pre-trial detention facility.”

Michael said he isn’t picky about who would build such a facility. But he is when it comes to who would run it.

“I don’t care who builds it as long as it is run appropriately and if it’s evidence-based I’ll put my kids in it,” he said. “There is an issue of private control of a detention facility. I’m not a big fan of it. That’s why I want the sheriff to run my detention facility.”

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