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VOL. 10 | NO. 44 | Saturday, October 28, 2017

Justice Department Drops Some But Not All Juvenile Court Oversight

By Bill Dries

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Five months after local leaders talked with U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions in Memphis about ending Justice Department oversight of Juvenile Court, the Justice Department has ended some of the oversight but not all of it. (Daily News/Houston Coffield)

The U.S. Justice Department has dropped more but not all of the measures it put in place five years ago at Memphis-Shelby County Juvenile Court.

The reforms and monitoring in the 2012 settlement agreement between the Justice Department and the court, Shelby County government and the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office covered a wide range of areas in a scathing review of court practices, particularly in due process issues and a racial disparity in how the court treats African-American children in the court for the same offenses or problems as white children.

The 14 points of the agreement terminated by the Justice Department Thursday, Oct. 27, deal with due process issues including independent legal representation of children and the practices used by the court for children who are in detention.

That leaves in place those parts of the settlement agreement that deal with the racial disparity.

Acting Assistant Attorney General John M. Gore, in a letter to Juvenile Court Judge Dan Michael, County Mayor Mark Luttrell and Sheriff Bill Oldham, said the Justice Department is terminating those provisions of the 2012 settlement agreement dealing with due process measures that the agreement’s due process monitor has said the court and county have complied with.

“We are confident that, based on the county’s continuing and, to date, successful efforts to achieve compliance, we will be able to successfully terminate the remaining provisions,” Gore wrote. “Because more work needs to be done before that goal is achieved, it would be premature to terminate the entire agreement at this time.”

The Justice Department terminated still other parts of the agreement in April at the request of Michael, Luttrell and Oldham shortly after the change in administrations at the White House including Jeff Sessions as the new U.S. Attorney General.

When Sessions visited Memphis in May, they pushed for termination of the rest of the settlement. Sessions took no position on the request and told them to make a formal request in writing. They did in June.

A week letter, the request went public with the Shelby County Commission and Memphis City Council approved resolutions opposing the request. A coalition of 19 local organizations led by the Memphis Branch NAACP as well as 28 citizens also drafted a statement opposing the request and sent that statement to Sessions.

By September there was no decision from the Justice Department. County Attorney Kathryn W. Pascover and Assistant County Attorney John Marshall Jones drafted and sent to Washington an amended request listing fewer parts of the settlement for termination, according to a footnote in Thursday’s letter from Gore.

It is that request the Justice Department granted.

Michael, in a written statement, said the Justice Department action “affirmed its confidence in the operations of Juvenile Court.”

“Today’s letter from the DOJ acknowledges not only the accomplishments achieved, but also the substantial progress that has been made toward compliance of all provisions of the agreement,” Michael added.

Josh Spickler, executive director of the criminal justice reform group Just City, expressed concern over the decision and its impact, particularly on the problem of disproportionate minority contact by the court.

“This community should not forget these conditions too hastily,” Spickler said in a written statement. “And we are gravely concerned that any premature departure by the Justice Department’s monitors will lead to exactly that kind of community amnesia.”

Michael has been critical of the monitors who are part of the settlement agreement and whose findings determine whether the court is making progress on specific points.

“These were lawyers who came in. They make findings. So what?” Michael said in September on the WKNO TV program “Behind The Headlines.” “I make findings every day. My findings are reviewed by a court of appeals. My findings are reviewed by the Supreme Court. Who reviews the findings in the memorandum of agreement? No one.”

He also said the monitor’s specific findings on disproportionate minority contact by the court has “created such a firestorm with their findings.”

“Every time they come to Memphis and they stand before the cameras, they raise the ire of problems over and over again,” he added.

Former settlement coordinator Bill Powell, who resigned in response to the June request by Michael, Luttrell and Oldham to drop the entire settlement agreement, said in a later episode of the same program that the court still has problems and has taken the changes recommended by monitors personally.

“Where they have fallen short is … children are not being treated the same,” he said in September. “The outcomes for a black child versus a white child are consistently different at virtually every stage in the system. … A lot of those issues that are leading to disparities are because of our practices, policies and procedures.”

Powell also said Michael’s criticism of the monitors was part of “continued resistance” – “not discussing the data that these monitors are bringing to us, talking about the monitors’ motives for being monitors, how much money they made and whether they are just mimicking what the Department of Justice attorneys are telling them.”

Since Powell’s departure, retired state Criminal Appeals Court judge and former District Attorney General Paul Summers has been appointed the settlement coordinator.

Michael in the last month has been part of a renewed push for a separate “assessment center” that juveniles brought to the court would go to before entering the court system.

Michael has said such a center could keep children who don’t belong in the system out of it by offering alternatives before a case goes to him or the magistrates in Juvenile Court.

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