County Leaders Seek End to Juvenile Court Memorandum With Justice Department

By Bill Dries

The Shelby County government institutions that signed off on a 2012 agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice to overhaul Memphis-Shelby County Juvenile Court want to end what is left of the memorandum of understanding.

Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell, Juvenile Court Judge Dan Michael and Shelby County Sheriff Bill Oldham sent a letter to U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions dated June 9 saying, “We hope your review will lead you to the same conclusion we have reached – it is time to terminate the agreement and allow all sides to stand together to praise the work that has been accomplished.”

The call comes two months after the Justice Department agreed to drop 17 areas in the agreement leaving the three areas of due process problems, equal protection claims and protecting children from harm while they are in juvenile custody. Those three areas have been where court monitors and critics of Juvenile Court on the Shelby County Commission have continued to express the most concern.

The call for an end to the remaining three points of the memorandum that followed a lengthy review over several years of Juvenile Court procedures and methods came after Sessions’ May 25 visit to Memphis. The agreement came up in private discussions during the visit, according to the letter.

Sessions made no mention of it in his public remarks to a group of federal prosecutors

Neither did Michael in a June 13 Juvenile Justice Summit in Hickory Hill.

“Incredible and solid reform has been achieved thank the efforts of all parties to the MOA (memorandum of agreement),” the letter concludes. “Thousands of hours and millions of dollars have been spent with the DOJ’s attorneys and monitors in working through all aspects of the

MOA. This work has created a roadmap for all other juvenile courts in the United States.”

On the three remaining issues that Luttrell, Michael and Oldham are seeking to declare resolved:

The letter from county officials says 60 percent of the children who come to Juvenile Court on matters are represented by the Shelby County Public Defender – a unit of the office specifically for juvenile cases that was among the first of the reforms to emerge from the memorandum.

And the county is moving to appoint “part-time assistant public defenders” from the ranks of private attorneys.

“Given these circumstances, the county and the court have done what they can do to alleviate this matter,” the June 9 letter to Sessions concludes.

There is also a conflict between Tennessee Supreme Court decisions and the monitors on discovery issues at preliminary hearings as well as hearings where the District Attorney General’s office seeks to try juvenile as adults.

The county leaders claim “significant improvements” in protection from harm in juvenile detention “especially in the past six months.” That includes a “dramatic increase in the use of non-physical alternatives to force” and a drop in youth-on-youth assaults.

The monitor and county leaders disagree on a call by the monitor to “scale back” the reaction to threats of suicide.

On disproportionate minority contact with the juvenile justice system, the county leaders write Sessions that there is an overall drop in delinquency complaints – from 11,641 in 2010 to 4,948 in 2016. And the number of youth detained has gone from 6,238 in 2010 to 899 in 2016.

“It is important to note that the court does not make the decision to initiate delinquency matters or prosecute cases,” the letter adds. “Every case is brought to the court by law enforcement. Memphis is a city with a 66 percent African-American majority.”

The request comes a year after a compliance report from the Justice Department and several of the monitors appointed to gauge what progress has been made and what still needs to be done to meet the terms of the memorandum.

The report by Dr. Michael Leiber of the University of South Florida found progress in dropping the number of juveniles in detention and in the juvenile justice system beyond an initial contact.

But his findings were critical of decisions made at the court level.

“Being black increases the chances of being detained compared to similar whites,” Leiber found in the report last year. “Being black decreases the chances of receiving a non-judicial outcome compared to similar whites. … Race continues to explain case outcomes even after taking into consideration relevant legal factors such as crime severity, crime type, etc.”

At an April 2016 forum at the National Civil Rights Museum, Leiber said there is a “serious lack of movement” in addressing disproportionate minority contact.

And Justice Department attorney Winsome Gayle said at the same gathering that while the court is collecting data, it isn’t doing enough to address the problems shown in that data.

A report by another monitor specifically on juvenile detention in June 2016 found incomplete observation logs for juveniles in detention