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VOL. 132 | NO. 186 | Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Juvenile Court Outcomes Still Questioned

By Bill Dries

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Rev. Keith Norman says just about every time federal monitors in the settlement agreement with Juvenile Court come to Memphis they meet with him and want to hear from a broad cross section of Memphians with no filtering of those they encounter.


“They were discovering the same thing over and over again,” Norman said of stories from parents of children at Memphis and Shelby County Juvenile Court who say the children were pressured to “plead to something.”

“Being given advice by someone saying you need to plead to something or say that you did it and it will lessen the charge or do something different,” is how Norman described it on the WKNO/Channel 10 program “Behind The Headlines.”

“You can’t do that with a child,” said Norman, pastor of First Baptist Church – Broad. “You can’t do it with an adult, but you definitely shouldn’t do it with a child.”

Norman is among the critics of the move by Juvenile Court Judge Dan Michael, Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell and Sheriff Bill Oldham to end U.S. Justice Department oversight of the court.

Since the June request to U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, which is still awaiting a decision, Michael has been equally vocal in his criticism of the oversight for the past five years, accusing Justice Department attorneys and the monitors who determine if the court is complying with terms of the agreement of “moving the goal posts.”


Michael reiterated those sentiments in an interview on “Behind The Headlines” two weeks before Norman and Just City director Josh Spickler.

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

Spickler and Norman give the court credit for improving due process and equal protection issues to some degree. But they argue federal oversight has been responsible to some degree for the improvement.


And they said the court is still making decisions that mean disproportionately harsher punishments and resolutions for African-American children than white children – a conclusion backed by the monitors who are part of the oversight process.

“If the same offense occurs in another community and the same offense occurs with a child of color – is the process the same?” Norman asked. “In this case, what we are clearly talking about is the process was different – how the children were handled, it was a completely different system.”

The former coordinator of the agreement, Bill Powell, agrees.

“I think a lot of the solution to that is a self examination of what we are doing,” he said on the BTH show. “Are we detaining children for reasons that are not criminal justice reasons? In other words, is a child held because his mother cannot come and pick him up?”

Powell resigned as coordinator in June because of the request to end federal oversight. He said over the five years of the agreement Juvenile Court has resisted compliance measures. Powell has worked in the criminal justice system for nearly 40 years, including serving as a leader of efforts to better coordinate the local criminal justice system.

The county has hired retired state criminal appeals court judge Paul Summers to be the new coordinator.

The example of a parent who either can’t or won’t take a child home instead of leaving them at the court for detention is one Michael cited as a reason for keeping a child in custody pending a final outcome.

Norman says his experience as leader of a church offering a place for those children to stay has been that the court makes assumptions.

“I’ve been in situations where we assume this kid doesn’t have anyone who will come pick him up or mom is not going to answer and nobody cares,” he said. “That’s not our decision to make. Our decision is to make sure we give this kid every opportunity as we give any other kid. Are we willing to go to that extent or just push him or her into a system where they are going to be incarcerated and it’s going to turn into something worse further down the line?”

“Behind The Headlines,” hosted by Eric Barnes, publisher of The Daily News, can be seen on The Daily News Video page, video.memphisdailynews.com. The Sept. 1 program featuring Michael also can be found on the page.

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