Advocates say work isn’t done as officials ask to end juvenile reform agreement

MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- Shelby County officials have sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Justice asking the attorney general to end monitoring of the county's juvenile justice system.

Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell co-signed the letter with Sheriff Bill Oldham and juvenile court Judge Dan Michael.

The DOJ began looking into Shelby County practices after a 2012 investigation found Shelby County juvenile court “fails to provide constitutionally required due process to all children” and specifically “discriminates against African-American children.”

Luttrell said the issue came into focus during a recent breakfast with new Attorney General Jeff Sessions on his visit to Memphis.

Luttrell said officials asked the attorney general if the DOJ would end its agreement of monitoring and agree to hold a press conference to announce the success of Shelby County's reform.

"We felt like we'd reached the level that we could be released from the agreement,” Luttrell said.

He said the county has made improvements since 2012, like increasing the public defender budget.

“We’ve made significant progress. Have we 100 percent complied? No, we haven’t. We're moving in that direction,” Luttrell said.

But attorney Josh Spickler used to be a public defender and started an advocacy group called Just City. He said what he saw in court painted a different picture.

“This county still has a juvenile justice system that treats black children differently because of the color of their skin. That’s the one thing that hasn’t changed,” he said, referencing biannual reports from a DOJ monitor. “You’re declaring 'mission accomplished' when nothing can be further from the truth."

He also said the county would lose out on federal resources if the federal government ends the agreement.

He thought county leaders were taking advantage of a certain political climate of which Sessions is a part.

But Luttrell said they would continue their efforts under local oversight of the county attorney.

Luttrell also said the county is doing a feasibility study to decide whether to renovate or replace the juvenile detention center. The building was build in 1935. Luttrell said it’s not fully compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act and deemed it "inadequate."

Luttrell said Oldham and Michael were both invited to attend Monday's media availability session but did not appear.

When reached for comment, Oldham's spokesperson declined. Michael's office never responded to WREG's request.

Luttrell said he did not know how soon the DOJ would respond to the county's request. DOJ representatives did not respond to WREG's request for comment.