VOL. 132 | NO. 125 | Friday, June 23, 2017
Shelby County Commissioners Question Ending DOJ Agreement
By Bill Dries
The first reviews from Shelby County Commissioners Wednesday, June 21, of the idea of dropping Justice Department oversight of Memphis-Shelby County Juvenile Court were highly critical.
In committee sessions Wednesday afternoon, June 21, commissioners complained of not being consulted before county Mayor Mark Luttrell, Juvenile Court Judge Dan Michael and Sheriff Bill Oldham made the request to U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
The request is to close the 2012 memorandum of agreement between the county and the Justice Department requiring substantial changes at Juvenile Court on numerous issues.
Sessions agreed in April to end the agreement on 17 separate points, leaving several areas including due process and detention issues still under oversight. Those are arguably the two most critical issues cited in a scathing 2012 Justice Department review of Juvenile Court that led to the memorandum.
The June 9 request to Sessions would declare Juvenile Court and the county in substantial compliance in those areas as well.
Luttrell has said the county and the court will continue to work on reforms if there is no more Justice Department oversight.
Commissioner Van Turner was skeptical.
“We can subpoena stuff all day and they can just flush it down the toilet because we’re county government,” Turner said, referring to requests for information from Juvenile Court.
“When you look at the civil rights struggle in this country, the only recourse that progressive-minded persons had to get anything done was through the federal court system,” he added. “Those are federal entities which had to come in because states and county governments would not do what’s right. Had it not been for the federal government oversight, I would not be here today.”
Turner is proposing the county seek continued oversight from a federal magistrate.
“I tell you this, if we do not, we will be in the same position next year,” he said.
Luttrell said he is willing to talk about some kind of further oversight.
“I would challenge you as a commission to be a little bit more proactive,” he said. “One could get the impression from this session today that there are a bunch of armchair quarterbacks sitting here today and I don’t think that is your intention.”
A coalition of groups including the Memphis Branch NAACP, Just City and Memphis Grassroots Organization Coalition also spoke at the committee session in opposition to the end of Justice Department monitoring.
Commissioner Terry Roland said even if the Justice Department remained involved there would be changes.
“You do know this is not the same Department of Justice that was there when this started?” he asked Turner. “This Department of Justice is going to be appointed by Jeff Sessions. I just want you to understand what you are asking for.”
Luttrell said involving a federal magistrate or courts in some way would probably have to be at least vetted with the Justice Department. Turner said his preference would be federal court involvement.
The county commission did not approve the request to end the memorandum nor did it approve the memorandum in 2012. Some on the commission at that time – notably Mike Ritz – argued that Luttrell should have involved the commission, but the commission took no formal action to press the point.
The commission approves overall funding for Juvenile Court as part of the county’s consolidated budget.