Covering Shelby County Juvenile Court: defendant talks about experience inside detention center

MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- Shelby County Juvenile Court is still under federal monitoring, though the Department of Justice recently announced it was dropping some of its requirements.

The monitoring came as a result of a 2012 memo of understanding between the DOJ and Shelby County, though Shelby County leaders have asked the DOJ to end all monitoring.

One parent WREG spoke with does not want the monitoring to end.

Her son, who WREG is not identifying, spent about two months in the detention center between April and June 2017.

He traced his trouble back to when he was a junior at Germantown High School, making good grades and hoping to join the Air Force after high school. But he took a wrong turn and started making bad decisions. He said he wasn't thinking about his future.

“I was hanging with the wrong crowd, got caught up in getting fast money. What my age group calls it is 'hit a licks' but basically it’s robbing people," he said. “I got my first $300 real fast instead of working my real job. I got $300 in a day so I just got caught up in how they was doing it."

He said his partner would arrange to sell something online and he’d be the driver. They’d meet in a buyer in a parking lot.

They robbed someone once and got away with it, so they set up another hit at the KFC in Lakeland.

“He came to the car, said, ‘Where’s the money?’ I showed him the phone and my charge partner pulled a gun out and robbed him and I pulled off,” he said.

But it turned out, the victim knew his partner. They both got caught. Police called him a few days later.

“They said, ‘Would you prefer us to pick you up from your job or would you drive to the precinct to make it easier on yourself?’ I just chose it. I know I did it,” he said.

He turned himself in to the juvenile detention center but has trouble reaching his lawyer, a public defender.

His mom also had trouble. She never got in touch with him until his first court date, when he gave her disappointing news. She said he agreed with the prosecutor’s recommendation to try him as an adult.

“The first thing they said was they were going to bound him over,” she said.

In fact, A 2012 DOJ investigation found a pattern of similar issues. According to the investigative report, the court “fails to provide adequate due process protections for children before transferring them to the adult criminal court." Monitors “observed hearings and reviewed transcripts in which Magistrates made transfer decisions after making cursory inquiries (and in some cases no inquiries).”

“Everybody down there is going to plead with their mom or dad to pay for a lawyer because we all know a public defender is doomed,” he said.

“This is his first charge, never been to juvenile court, you haven’t even met with him and you’re just gonna go with the prosecutor and bound him over? My heart hit the floor,” his mother said.

Federal monitors did find improvements in this area this year and relieved the court from due process monitoring.

But monitors still found black children are more then four times more likely to go through the juvenile system than white children.

A report released in July 2017 said “race continues to explain case outcomes even after taking into consideration relevant legal factors, such as crime severity, crime type, etc.”

Our juvenile defendant said he also witnessed the issue inside the facility.

“One time I was there when a white kid came down there on aggravated assault. He went home in two days but if he’d been black, he would’ve stayed,” he said. “I’m not even sure why that is to be honest. Everybody knows, every time a white kid came in all the black kids say, 'Oh he’s going home.'”

WREG submitted a public records request to juvenile court asking for sentences by race over the last three years of children charged with aggravated robbery, the same charge for which our subject served time. But Shelby County officials wouldn’t supply the racial data. They said that would “require the records custodian to sort through records to compile a report. Pursuant to [state law], we are not required to sort through files to compile information.”

"They're just being railroaded. The system is so unfair,” the subject's mom said.

Ultimately his mom paid $2,000 to hire a private lawyer.

The juvenile defendant also reported learning some valuable lesson during his time in detention.

“I’m gonna say it was a worthwhile experience. Now I look at things totally different,” he said.

He took advantage of opportunities; he took classes and his counselor became a lifelong mentor. They also had visitors.

“We had different speakers come and talk to us about what’s really going on in Memphis. The new plans, new building plans downtown,” he said.

He says he think about his time in detention every day. He knows it had an impact on him and others.

“The people I talked to, I didn’t think they’d come back because they changed. They were reading books and going to school," he said.

The 18-year-old is now on probation. He wants to go to Southwest Tennessee Community College and then join the Air Force, like his dad.

“When I complete my ROTC at Southwest, I’m going to go in as an officer,” he said.

He said he’s speaking up now to hopefully make a difference for someone else.

WREG wanted to speak with Juvenile Court Judge Dan Michael about this story to find out what kind of changes he's made to address parent and DOJ concerns. We had an interview scheduled, but his office cancelled the day before. They sent the following statement: "Contrary to what Channel 3 reports, we treat every person who comes in contact with Juvenile Court fairly and with respect and dignity. There seems to be an obvious bias to which WREG approaches stories relative to Juvenile Court. I do not believe that WREG can approach any matter related to Juvenile Court fairly."