Tennessee county to overhaul juvenile system

Black youths with similar histories put into detention, sent to adult court more than white kids

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After a three-year investigation, authorities in Shelby County, Tenn. signed an agreement Monday with the U.S. Department of Justice to revamp a  juvenile-justice system federal officials said was unduly harsh to black youth, including those accused of minor infractions. 

The agreement will require Shelby, which includes the city of Memphis, to initiate sweeping staff training and changes to improve minors’ defense options, alter court proceedings to guarantee the rights of accused offenders and eliminate detention practices federal officials found dangerous.

In April, federal investigators published a litany of accusations about the Shelby County juvenile-justice system. Investigators alleged that local officials were routinely violating the constitutional rights of youths put into court proceedings and detention. Among the accusations: “cursory” decisions to transfer youths to adult court, inadequate counsel and an adult-court transfer rate for black wards twice that of white wards.

Detention officials also violated their own policies by strapping wards down in restraint chairs for lengthy periods of time and for inappropriate reasons, investigators with the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division alleged.  In addition, they said custodians failed to protect wards from “self-injury” and used “dangerous and unconventional pressure point tactics” to subdue youth. 

Juvenile-justice advocates consider the Shelby agreement an important step forward in a burgeoning national movement to reform suspect juvenile-court proceedings and detention policies.  New York and other states are already scaling back large detention facilities and placing low-level offenders in community-based rehabilitation programs, which is Shelby’s plan now, as the New York Times reported.

 The Memphis Commercial Appeal reported that some local elected officials  were unhappy with the process leading up the agreement, even though some had also previously complained of suspect treatment of youth. Another local elected official reportedly said he thought allegations of disproportionate unfair treatment of black youth were blown “out of proportion.”   

One member of the county’s elected Board of Commissioners said members might not vote to authorize spending $4.5 to $6.5 million in reforms they didn’t help plan, the newspaper said. If the conditions of agreement are not fulfilled, however, federal officials could sue Shelby.

The report that federal investigators released in April contains allegations of stark racial disparities that were uncovered, they said, by studying records and transcripts of juvenile proceedings in Shelby County. 

Investigators found “a disparity in the initial detention of black children as compared to white children,” according to the report. “The case data showed that a black child was more than twice as likely to be detained as a white child. This number remained unchanged after accounting for other legal and social factors.”

Investigators also found that black children were one third less likely to receive a warning from local juvenile authorities than white children, “even after accounting for other factors such as prior contacts with the court, the severity of the charges, gender, and education.”

As the Center for Public Integrity reported in September, civil rights investigators with the U.S. Department of Justice have also scrutinized the juvenile court of the community of Meridian, Miss.

Federal officials sent a warning letter to Meridian after an investigation found that youths were being sent into detention unjustly in a “school to prison pipeline.” In October, federal officials filed suit against authorities in Meridian, alleging violations of constitutional rights of minors sent to detention because of violations of school discipline rules.