NPR Explores Progress, Remaining Challenges at Shelby County Juvenile Court

“This work is going to take time; it’s going to take deep commitment. But we really are talking about justice for a new generation.” – Stephen Bush, Shelby County Chief Public Defender

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It’s a long game — the reform of the Shelby County Juvenile Court.  As this recent story on NPR’s Morning Edition illustrates so well, there is still a very long way to go.

Whether you’ve been keeping up with the stories about Shelby County Juvenile Court reform or not, this piece by NPR provides a good overview of changes that have taken place since a scathing investigation by the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division was released in 2012.

The report claimed that Shelby County’s Juvenile Court has been responsible for systemic violation of due process rights for children. Perhaps more damaging, the DOJ conducted a detailed analysis of five years of court data that showed the court treated black children more harshly than white children. This disparity was most stark in cases where children were facing transfer to the adult system.

In the 2013 Memorandum of Agreement between the DOJ, Shelby County and the Juvenile Court, the Shelby County Public Defender’s Office was tapped to oversee the transformation of the juvenile defender function.  This marked the first time the Public Defender had been directly responsible for defending children in forty years.

The office’s newly formed Juvenile Defender Unit began taking cases at the start of 2014.  By late August or early September, the office will open a stand-alone juvenile defender center next to the court. The new center, renovated carefully with the needs of children and their families in mind, will provide a safe and welcoming environment for this new, difficult and highly-specialized advocacy.

You can listen to the story here.  Or read the transcript here, although we highly recommend the audio version.

The full DOJ report and the 2013 Memorandum of Agreement are available here.

Supreme Court Decision Authored by Memphis Native Still Challenging Juvenile Courts 47 Years Later

It was 47 years ago this month that a Memphis native authored a Supreme Court opinion that would alter the course of juvenile justice in the U.S.
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Supreme Court Justice Abe Fortas

On May 15th, 1967, Memphian and Supreme Court Justice Abe Fortas  wrote the majority opinion for the In re Gault decision, which held that children were “persons” under the U.S. Constitution and should be treated fairly when faced with deprivation of liberty.

Specifically, it established the due process rights of children — that they have a right to counsel and were entitled to notice of charges against them and to confront and cross examine accusers.  The decision also firmly stated that children have a right against self-incrimination. In other words, it provided children the same due process rights as adults.

Fortas and the court sided with a 15 year-old Arizona boy named Gerald Gault who had been sentenced to six years in reform school … for a prank phone call. It was not just the outrageous outcome of this case, however, that eventually brought the Gault case before the U.S. Supreme Court in 1967; It was the entire legal process that led to the sentence:

  • Gault was removed from his home by law enforcement without notification to his parents.
  • Gault’s accuser was not present at the hearing.
  • No record was kept of the proceeding and no witnesses were sworn in before testimony.
  • Gault was never advised of his rights and no attorney was present.

At the time, the maximum sentence in Arizona for an adult accused of the same crime —  a $50 fine and two months in jail. Much less than the six years Gault was given.

Gault’s parents filed a petition for his release, which eventually reached the Supreme Court.

On the anniversary of a court decision made more than four decades earlier, it is ironic that the the Department of Justice would currently be in the process of enforcing this opinion in Memphis — an opinion authored by a Memphis native. In its 2012 investigation of the Shelby County Juvenile Court, the DOJ repeatedly cited Gault to support charges that essential rights had not been extended to children in Memphis and Shelby County.

“More than 40 years ago, the Supreme Court established the parameters of due process for children facing delinquency proceedings and thereby subject to the ‘awesome prospect of incarceration.’ In re Gault, 387 U.S. 1, 36 (1967). The Court held that children must be afforded the right to counsel, the right to notice of the charges, the right to be free from self-incrimination, and the right to confront witnesses

“During our investigation, we found pre-Gault era practices in JCMSC [Juvenile Court of Memphis and Shelby County] that violate the due process rights of children facing delinquency proceedings. These practices violate the children’s civil rights.”

Investigation of the Shelby County Juvenile Court, U.S. Department of Justice Civil Right Division, April 26, 2012.

At the start of this year, the Shelby County Public Defender’s new Juvenile Defender Unit began taking cases in juvenile court. This marked the first time in more than 30 years that the Public Defender’s Office has been formally involved in Juvenile Court. You can read more about the immersive training the Juvenile Defender Unit and some private attorneys are undergoing to learn the latest practices in this highly specialized area of law:

Juvenile Defenders Gather in Memphis, Train to Fight Transfers

Tennessee Lawyers Learn Latest National Juvenile Defense Practices in Memphis

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Revisiting Fortas

You can also learn more about the role Memphis native Abe Fortas played in developing new standards for the defense of children and adults in this inaugural edition of Memphis Law, a new magazine published by the University of Memphis Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law. Our office wrote the cover story about Fortas’ contributions to the right to counsel in our country. We also wrote an article about the state of public defense in Memphis,today. If you’re an alumni or supporter, the magazine will be delivered to your home. Or you can check out the issue online: ‘Memphis Law’ Inaugural Issue

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Why Treating Kids Like Adults in the Justice System Doesn’t Work

juvenile-criminalsWhen a child is charged with a violent crime he can be transferred to adult court, where he will await trial in an adult jail and, if convicted, sentenced to an adult prison. As individuals, we may reason that a child mature enough to commit a crime should be tried and serve time as an adult.

But the decision to transfer children to the adult system comes at great cost to the child and, according to some researchers, our community.

The CDC conducted a study based on an exhaustive examination of kids in the adult justice system. What it found was that transferring children to the adult system actually increased violent acts among this population.  The study taskforce went on to recommend that communities end the practice of youth transfers to the adult system if the intent of policy makers is to reduce violence.

Children incarcerated in the adult system are also more likely to be targets of violence and to cause harm to themselves.   A DOJ report about sexual violence within the correctional system found that even though children make up 1% of the U.S. prison population, they account for 13% of those sexually victimized by adult inmates.

Jailed youth also have the highest suicide rate among all inmates, according to a DOJ special report about suicides and homicides within jails and state prisons.

Nationwide, 7,500 children are locked up in adult jails even though federal law prohibits the incarceration of children in the adult system.  But the law does not protect children who have been transferred into the adult system.

According to records kept by the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office, an average of 22 children were held inside the Shelby County Jail during the month of April 2013.  That’s down from 29 children this time last year.

Since the DOJ investigation of the Shelby County Juvenile Court, transfers of juveniles to the adult system have dropped significantly.  The DOJ cited the Court for transferring too many children into the adult system and also charged it with equal protection violations due to the overrepresentation of black teens among those transferred.

According to a recent story in the Commercial Appeal, since the DOJ started investigating the court in 2009, transfers have declined from all-time high of 225 children in 2008  to 29 children as of April this year.

Relevant Article: 

5 Essential Reasons to Keep Kids Out of Adult Jails

You can also follow the latest transfer case in Shelby County Juvenile Court by clicking on this article in the Commercial Appeal (story behind a paywall.)