He turned 15-years old in a Shelby County jail last year.
For nearly one year, he has been kept in a cell awaiting his trial. He’s charged with starting a fire that killed his mother. If convicted, he faces life in prison. If convicted, the decision he’s accused of making as a 14-year old boy … and the decisions other adults have made inside the criminal justice system … will, effectively, result in a death sentence for a child.
This week, 36 juvenile defenders from Memphis, Nashville and Knoxville will gather at the FedEx Institute of Technology for the third part of the Juvenile Defender Training Program (JTIP.) The new curriculum developed by two national leaders in juvenile justice reform — the National Juvenile Defender Center (NJDC) and Models for Change — seeks to provide defenders the highly specialized training needed to advocate for children in the juvenile courts of Tennessee. This week, Memphis continues its role as one of the pilot sites for this training.
This two-day training session will focus on the best ways for defenders to challenge the transfer of children to adult court. Much of the research involving transfer concludes that the damage it causes far outweighs any potential benefits to the child and community. Analysis of FBI statistics on the relationship between transfer and lower violent crime rates among children reveals no significant correlation. In fact, states that transfer less, experience drops in violent youth crime rates at the same or greater rate than states that transfer more. Additionally, some research shows that children sentenced in the adult system are more likely to commit violent crimes once released, than those detained in the juvenile system.
But the significant cost to children is … undeniable. Children sentenced to an adult prison are at heightened risk of physical, sexual and psychological harm at the hands of adult inmates and prison staff. Adult imprisonment can also disrupt adolescent development, both socially and cognitively. The result can be serious, lifelong damage to young people who will, with very few exceptions, return to their communities one day.
The transfer process is of particular interest in Shelby County. That’s because the 2012 Department of Justice investigation of the Shelby County Juvenile Court found a lack of due process for children facing transfer to adult court. It also found that black teens were significantly more likely than white teens to be sent to adult court, even for minor infractions.
“In the Memphis case, as many as 4,100 teenagers were once formally charged each year, and nearly 200 of those cases were sent to adult criminal court. But the numbers are dropping. In 2010, 151 teenagers were transferred to adult criminal court. This year, the number will be around 100, said Mr. Scroggs, of the Shelby County juvenile court.” – The New York Times, December 2012.
While the number of transfers is down dramatically from the DOJs original findings, the number and race of children still being sent into Shelby County’s adult system is troubling to those involved in juvenile defense.
National Leaders Teaching National Standards
JTIP training has been held in a handful of communities across the country — an effort to raise the level of juvenile defense to high national standards, while at the same time taking into account state laws and practices.
JTIP trainer, Kris Henning, a law professor and co-director of the Juvenile Justice Center at Georgetown Law, will return to Memphis this week. Henning has been involved in training across the country and believes this program is invaluable to both experienced and new defenders.
“Experienced defenders are rarely given an opportunity to stop and reflect on how they are practicing, and how to raise their level of practice. So it’s been very, very good for that,” says Henning. “It’s also good for defenders to see what’s going on in the rest of the world, so they can raise their level of practice by trying novel ideas that are common or well-received in other jurisdictions. For new defenders, it’s just been hands down, extraordinarily enlightening and provides their basic framework.”
The Memorandum of Agreement between Shelby County and the DOJ required that Shelby County Public Defender’s Office take primary responsibility for the defense of children in Juvenile Court. Earlier this year, when members of the new Juvenile Defense Unit took their initial cases, it marked the first time the public defender’s office had an official role in Juvenile Court in more than 30 years.
Shelby County Chief Public Defender Stephen Bush says it is important for his office to provide this level of training to members of his new Juvenile Defender Unit, as well as attorneys on the private panel taking cases in Juvenile Court. Bush believes this immersive training program will help raise standards for juvenile defense in Shelby County because the JTIP curriculum is delivered by some of the best minds in the national juvenile justice reform movement.
“These are some of the most talented legal educators I’ve ever seen come in to do this type of training,” says Bush. “This is different from how training is normally provided to lawyers, ten and twenty years after they are out of law school. It’s experiential, interactive, engaging. It’s not just that these trainers know what they’re talking about, it’s that they are effective teachers. And they have spent an enormous amount of time, not just in producing training that drives these standards of practice, but in localizing it to Tennessee practice, tying it to Tennessee rules of juvenile practice, to state law, respecting case law and court opinions. There’s real value in framing the defender’s role through this type of instruction. “
The final section for Memphis JTIP training will take place in August.