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VOL. 132 | NO. 184 | Friday, September 15, 2017

Juvenile Court Resisting Remedies, Says Former Settlement Coordinator

By Bill Dries

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The coordinator overseeing the Memphis and Shelby County Juvenile Court settlement with the U.S. Department of Justice resigned in June as a reaction to the letter County Mayor Mark Luttrell, Juvenile Court Judge Dan Michael and Sheriff Bill Oldham sent U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions requesting an end to federal oversight of the court.

“I could not agree with it, could not support it, and I went in and resigned,” Bill Powell said on the WKNO-TV program “Behind the Headlines.”

The show, hosted by Eric Barnes, publisher of The Daily News, was taped Thursday, Sept. 14, to air Friday at 7 p.m.

Powell, who was the coordinator of the agreement for five years and has nearly 40 years’ experience in criminal justice, including coordination of various parts of that system for adults and juveniles, also said there was constant resistance from the court from the outset of the agreement with federal officials.

That was particularly the case on the finding the court treats African-American children disproportionately harshly compared with white children.

“A lot of them were offended at the findings and when the agreement was signed because they felt that they were being accused of making racially motivated decisions,” Powell said of Juvenile Court. “I did not read it that way and never felt that way. The findings essentially said there were disparate outcomes. It did not assign blame. It did not assign motivation. It did not assign intention to those actions. But that was simply the outcome. What I had advocated for and pushed was don’t take that personally.”

Powell said he wasn’t aware of the letter until after it had been sent to Sessions. He also said he saw an earlier draft that did not call for an end to the oversight.

“It was like two completely different documents. It was like the difference between ‘Macbeth’ and ‘Romeo and Juliet’ in my mind,” Powell said of the earlier draft and the letter that was sent. “I probably would not have gone in and resigned on that because it did not ask that the agreement be terminated. That was kind of the kicker from my standpoint. I felt that I had been pushing against the tide with some success. But when all three elected officials felt that the work had been completed and publicly stated that, what am I pushing against?”

Michael, during an appearance on “Behind the Headlines” two weeks ago, termed the continued oversight and monitoring of the court a “distraction.” The 2012 memorandum of agreement for Justice Department oversight was signed by then-Judge Curtis Person Jr., who said at the outset he didn’t agree with the DOJ’s findings, particularly that black children were treated more harshly than white children.

“But we agreed to the MOA because we felt as a public organization, the best way to resolve these problems was to not fight it out in court and cost the citizens millions of dollars and time,” Michael said. “We felt we could resolve the problem working with the Department of Justice and their lawyers. And we think we have.”

The judge also said the Justice Department findings and reports from monitors on the racial disparity have created a “firestorm,” with critics of the court raising “the ire of problems over and over again.”

Michael said the disparity is a function of the city’s majority African-American population. But Powell said that doesn’t explain different treatment of children who are in court for the same reason.

“There is no doubt we have a problem. Let me be clear. The court has done some good work as far as reducing the total number of children being held in detention, being petitioned into court, receiving diversion,” he said. “Where they have fallen short is … children are not being treated the same. … The outcomes for a black child versus a white child are consistently different at virtually every stage in the system.”

And Powell said the progress made on other fronts has largely been because of the pressure from federal oversight.

“A lot of those issues that are leading to disparity are because of our practices, policies and procedures. We have not done a thorough enough job of analyzing those things that may lead a child to a certain outcome that are not criminal justice related,” he said. “Those things are not just with children being brought here. They are decisions made whether to petition, whether to give one sanction or another. Thanks to the nudging by the Justice Department, some of those things have come about, but much more work needs to be done and that work needs to target why are we getting disparate outcomes, not pretending they don’t exist.”

Michael also was critical of the monitors that are part of the process – experts who crunch numbers and what the court work. He said one was making reports that follow what she was told by Justice Department attorneys and another was profiting from the continued oversight.

Powell said Michael was wrong to question their intent and said the monitors had “gone out of their way not to be overly critical.”

“We heard two weeks ago continued resistance to that – 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,” Powell said. “That is a very consistent message that we get from the judge and from the court on this. It’s very discouraging.”

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