Harris looking to reform juvenile justice in Shelby County

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Shelby County leaders are looking to reform the juvenile justice system in 2019, after a scathing final review from a national consultant assigned by the Department of Justice. They kicked off their committee meetings in the new year with a lengthy discussion about the system.

When former county mayor Mark Luttrell was leaving office last year, he sent a letter requesting the Department of Justice no longer monitor Shelby County Juvenile Court. The letter prompted criticism, but that's why the DOJ will no longer have oversight over Shelby County Juvenile Court.

“It’s been my experience there is a long history of resistance and obstruction by the court and also with the prior administration and the county attorney," the consultant said at today's committee meetings.

The county is now under new leadership with Mayor Lee Harris as the executive and Commissioner Tami Sawyer heading the courts committee.

The committee had a long discussion about the high number of juveniles sent for adjudication in the adult court system, as compared with other areas.

“In 2017, we had over 90 children termed as adult offenders," County Commissioner Mark Billingsley said. "Compare that to Nashville. They had four.”

“The numbers do speak for themselves," the federal monitor said. "Shelby County’s transfer rate is so, so far different from everyone else in the state."

Harris said he planned to address the issues with District Attorney General Amy Weirich. He will also make another change at the direction of the expert consultant with how the children's attorneys get chosen.

“Because one of the court’s employees is involved in that process, that makes it a little suspicious," Harris said.

Instead, Harris wants a staff member to handle the attorney selection. He said it would take about $50,000, and he is asking for commission approval.

District Attorney Amy Weirich released the following statement to WREG on the issue:

"We request transfer hearings in one-third of the eligible cases. These are  juveniles charged with murder, rape, carjacking  and robbery . They are also, typically, juveniles who have been in and out of juvenile court countless times and continue to victimize our citizens. Our violent crime rate is high. The numbers of juveniles charged with violent crimes is growing. Yet, in 2018 73 juveniles were transferred as compared to 92 in 2017. Of those 92, 18 of them were charged in 13 separate murders. I look forward to this level of concern being extended to the innocent victims of these violent crimes."

Harris said he planned to meet with Weirich in the future.

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