MEMPHIS, Tenn. — 2020 has been a grim year when it comes to violence in Memphis.
Police have called 2020 one of the most dangerous and tragic years for children. Of the more than 300 homicides in Memphis, more than 35 were children, ranging from just months old to 17 years old. The majority were African American boys.
Memphis Police say most were murdered, but around 20% were justifiable or negligent.
“We are going to be dealing with some of these issues for a long, long time in terms of kids not being in class, not being engaged in sports in activities that they are used to and so very much need,” said Shelby County district attorney Amy Weirich.
Weirich says working with juvenile crime is one of her goals for 2021. That includes a youth assessment center. UT Health and Sciences Center’s Youth Advocacy Coalition launched something like it at one point, but it wasn’t through juvenile court.
Instead, law enforcement, schools and community partners referred “at risk” youth to get help with things like expulsion, fighting, and gang activity. The county stopped funding it in June, but Weirich said there’s work to get a program like it up and running again.
“Of not only the juvenile who committed the crime, but the juvenile’s home,” Weirich said. “What’s going on in the juvenile’s life? Why is it that they’re out breaking into cars and stealing guns at 4 in the morning? What’s going on?”
Weirich says getting to the root of the problem would help keep the child from engaging in further criminal conduct and going deeper into the system.
“All the years I’ve been doing this, I’ve rarely seen a child who didn’t have enormous potential in life,” Weirich said.
Juvenile Court Judge Dan Michael says this year has presented obstacles as they’ve worked to handle matters virtually.
He said somehow the pandemic is connected to fewer kids getting arrested, and even fewer kids in the detention center.
“It would be wonderful to maintain a detention population of 40 kids. Normally this time of year we are closer to 100,” Michael said. “It’s the serious crime that I’m worried about. You know, we’re getting young children in here using guns to carjack people and rob people. it’s very, very frightening.”
He keeps thinking about an incident this fall, when police say a 16-year-old tried to carjack a man, causing the man to defend himself and shoot and kill the teen.
“That shouldn’t be happening to 16-year-olds. I’m sorry. It shouldn’t be,” Michael said. “It should be happening to anybody. My hope is that we can continue to educate the public.”
That includes educating the public on things like locking up their guns, especially if they’re in a car. Michael believes that’s how kids are getting a hand on them, and by educating the public it will make a difference.
He also wants parents to know they can ask for help.
“Reach out to us, we’ll do whatever we can to help,” Michael said. “Don’t flounder and drown if you’re having a problem.”
Weirich reiterated that, praising the work her team’s accomplished in 2020.
“We have never shut our office doors,” Weirich said.
But she warns COVID created a backlog. Jury trials haven’t happened since February.
“And that grows every day,” Weirich said.
She says her team is preparing for new the new year will bring.
Weirich says this is a community-wide effort, and they need the public to pitch in next year and do things like starting a neighborhood watch and speaking out against crime. She also repeated Michael’s request to lock up your guns.