Juvenile Probe Cites Rights, Race -- Justice Department Report Says Black Youths Treated More Harshly in Court System
Warren, Beth, The Commercial Appeal (Memphis, TN)
Black juveniles in Memphis are more likely to be locked up, to receive tougher punishments and to be transferred to adult court than white juveniles, U.S. Department of Justice officials announced at a news conference Thursday.
Following a three-year probe of Shelby County Juvenile Court and its detention center, the DOJ found a pattern of constitutional rights violations for all youths, discrimination against black youths and unsafe jail conditions, according to the department's 66- page report.
"We found serious and systemic failures," Thomas E. Perez, assistant attorney general who oversees the department's Civil Rights Division in Washington, said during Thursday's news conference in Memphis . "African-American children were being treated differently and more harshly."
Justice Department attorneys and outside consultants visited the court and detention center in 2010 and 2011 and analyzed more than 65,000 youth files.
The report concluded that "the juvenile court fails to provide constitutionally required due process to all children appearing for delinquency proceedings, that the court's administration of juvenile justice discriminates against African-American children and that its detention center violates the substantive due process rights of detained youth by not providing them with reasonably safe conditions of confinement."
U.S. Atty. Ed Stanton, who hosted the news briefing at the Memphis federal courthouse, told reporters: "While the Civil Rights Division's findings are serious and compelling, I am encouraged that the leadership and staff of the Shelby County Juvenile Court and Juvenile Detention Center have demonstrated that they intend to take immediate action."
The investigation followed allegations from Shelby County Commission member Henri Brooks and other African-American commissioners of discrimination and misconduct.
Brooks' complaint, filed with the DOJ in 2007, alleged mistreatment of juveniles based on race, discriminatory hiring practices, nepotism and political patronage and disregard for federal anti-discrimination laws.
Brooks said she took action after reviewing documents showing that white youths in the suburbs were being sent to school or home after the same infractions that resulted in jail trips and a juvenile record for black youths .
"I'm very happy the Justice Department validated the concerns and allegations of the complaint that I took to D.C," Brooks said Thursday. "There is something seriously wrong with Juvenile Court."
The commissioner, a Juvenile Court employee for 11 years, said that in 2007 she was besieged with criticism that she was making Memphis look bad by unfounded claims of racism.
"I don't want to say 'vindication,' but it's kind of like: 'Now you know you're wrong,' " she said of her critics.
Juvenile Court Judge Curtis Person, who attended the news conference, told reporters he didn't agree with all of the report's findings, particularly those alleging tougher treatment for black juveniles.
"It's a subjective finding," the judge said. "I don't think race enters into the decision-making in Juvenile Court.
"I deplore and will not tolerate discrimination of any kind. …