(Memphis) The Department of Justice is laying out a plan to fix problems in the Shelby County Juvenile Court system.
A three-year investigation found juveniles were not provided timely notice of their charges or their rights.
The system also failed to protect children from self-harm and excessive use of restraints and that African-American children were treated more harshly than others.
Shelby County`s juvenile justice system is the first in the country to be reviewed under a 1994 civil rights law.
“African American children were one-third less likely to receive a warning than similarly situated white children,” said Assistant Attorney General Thomas Perez.
African-Americans were also twice as likely to be recommended for transfer to adult court.
The Department of Justice is now putting a plan for reform in action to fix those problems.
That plan establishes a juvenile defender unit in the public defender`s office along with a panel of attorneys that will review cases and make sure people are notified of their charges in a timely manner, and probable cause is determined within forty-eight hours.
The plan also established a minority review officer to make sure decisions aren`t being made because of race and that person will have to turn in a monthly report with numerical evidence.
An outside review board will also be created.
“The juvenile court will have an outreach panel that must include a juvenile justice consortium that must be consisted of juvenile justice stakeholders as well as two parents of children that have had delinquency matters,” said Perez.
A person who is under twenty-one who has been in the juvenile court system will also be on the panel.
The DOJ says this will improve transparency and keep the court accountable, and they plan to oversee these changes until they feel progress has been made.
According to a release:
The agreement provides for comprehensive reforms in the areas of due process, equal protection, and other areas of court operations.
Due process reforms provide procedural safeguards for children at critical phases of their cases, including requirements that the court:
• Establish a dedicated juvenile defender unit in the public defender’s office that will be independent of the court and have the structure and resources to provide independent, ethical, and zealous representation for children.
• Require procedural safeguards against self-incrimination, to provide notice of charges, and to hold transfer hearings.
• Appoint counsel before children appear before a magistrate judge for a probable cause determination and provide the probable cause determination within 48 hours for all warrantless arrests.
• Make written findings for key judicial decisions, including transfer hearings.
• Implement policies in the court’s detention facility that will prohibit use of restraints, ensure a suicide prevention plan and require staff to receive training on adolescent development.
The equal protection reforms in the agreement require that the court administer juvenile justice in a manner that is consistent with the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution. These reforms require the juvenile court to:
• Assess where and why disproportionate minority contact (DMC) in the juvenile justice system occurs, including analysis of referrals and the court’s decisions at key stages of a child’s court case.
• Prohibit pre-adjudication detention for reasons that are not related to public safety or future appearance in court.
• Hire a DMC coordinator, who will be charged with gathering data, working with the court and other county agencies to develop alternatives to detention, and ensuring that children are not referred to juvenile court based on their race.
• Establish a pilot program allowing law enforcement to phone in information about a recently arrested youth and get guidance on whether the child should be immediately released and provided with an appearance summons or transported to juvenile court.
Additional reforms will provide for strengthening the juvenile court’s community engagement and accountability, including requirements that the court:
• Create a community oversight group comprised of juvenile justice stakeholders and six to nine citizens selected by the mayor and approved by the county commission. This group will include two parents of children who have had delinquency matters before Juvenile Court and a person under the age of 21 who has had direct contact with the juvenile justice system. Juvenile court officials will update this group and be required to answer its questions about any reform efforts.
• Provide bi-annual community updates and publish progress