Officials: Juvenile Court in Memphis improving treatment of youths, but more work needed


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MEMPHIS, Tennessee — Juvenile Court in Memphis is making progress in carrying out reforms mandated by the U.S. Department of Justice, but more work is needed in some areas, officials said Monday.

Officials with the Juvenile Court of Memphis and Shelby County held a meeting to inform the public about changes in how the juvenile court in Tennessee's largest county handles children who are charged with crimes.

In 2012, the Justice Department issued a scathing report outlining serious and systemic failures in the way juveniles were treated in the court. Two monitors and a consultant were assigned to oversee the overhaul, which will become a blueprint for other juvenile systems facing similar issues nationwide, federal officials have said.

Among the problems, the 2012 report found black children were treated differently than their white counterparts and the due process rights of children of all races were routinely violated. Black children were more likely to be detained, less likely to receive warnings and get lenient treatment, and more likely to be transferred to criminal court to be tried as adults, the report found.

The report also said African-American kids even got harsher treatment in cases when their grades and criminal histories were better than those of their white counterparts.

Also, young people were not given adequate notice of charges or prompt access to a lawyer, and their rights against self-incrimination were routinely violated, according to the report.

Court officials discussed some positive steps Monday, including the creation of a unit of public defenders assigned to represent juveniles. Children are now getting a detention review hearing within 48 hours of being detained and attorneys are being appointed before a detention hearing is held.

More signs of progress include a drop in the number of children being detained through the use of summonses issued by law enforcement and diversion programs. Changes in use-of-force policies have led to the removal of restraint chairs and a reduction in physical contact between detention employees and children.

However, improvements in several areas are still needed. Black youth are still coming into the system at a higher percentage than white children, and they are detained at a higher rate.

"That's probably the most challenging aspect of this endeavor," said Larry Scroggs, the court's chief administrative officer.

Also, transfers to adult court still appear to be high despite a steady decline in the past five years. And private attorneys need to represent children better at transfer hearings, officials said.

In all, 90 children were transferred to adult court in 2013 — a tiny percentage of the 9,090 youths who were referred to juvenile court, officials said.

Since the Shelby County report, the Justice Department announced an investigation of the Family Court of St. Louis and how it provides due process and equal protection to all children in delinquency proceedings.

Meanwhile, juvenile justice officials from around the country, including Clayton County, Georgia, are watching the progress of Shelby County, said Tom Coupe, a law and child welfare coordinator with the Juvenile Court in Memphis.

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