A majority of the Shelby County Commission favors lobbying for a return of federal oversight of Juvenile Court. (Photo: Facebook)

by James Coleman —

Shelby County commissioners on Monday (Jan. 24) voted 7-4 in favor of lobbying for a return of federal oversight of Juvenile Court, which was halted during the Trump administration. 

The action follows a resolution adopted in September that asked the U.S. Department of Justice to assess delinquency proceedings in the court, which has been accused of racial bias in sentencing, particularly regarding African-American youths when compared with compared to whites. 

Tami Sawyer

“This is asking our legislative analyst, our federal analyst, to carry that request forward as part of their lobbying duties, which is different from us sending a letter,” said Commissioner Tami Sawyer, the resolution’s sponsor.

The letter came at the recommendation of the Countywide Juvenile Justice Consortium. In addition to racial bias, the citizen-led board issued a report that highlighted lingering concerns about youth offender transfers to adult court, lack of mental programming and detainees fearful for their safety. 

The missive drew opposition from the court and the Shelby County Sheriff’s Department, which oversees detentions. 

After the plug was pulled on federal oversight, Sheriff Floyd Bonner Jr. hired DOJ’s consultant, Dr. David Roush, who still serves as an advisor. Bonner, who is up for re-election this year, is the first African American elected to serve as the county’s sheriff.

In 2012, the Department of Justice entered a memorandum of agreement (MOU) with the Juvenile Court of Memphis and Shelby County after reports described failures in protecting the constitutional rights of children concerning delinquency. 

The MOU also highlighted shortcomings in due-process rights for juvenile offenders. The agreement was halted by then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions in 2018. 

The resolution was originally part of a broader agenda item but was separated at the request of Commissioner Brandon Morrison, who felt it contrasted with the bi-partisan nature of the rest of the item. The move drew no objections.

Commissioners voting in favor were Edmund Ford Jr., Eddie Jones, Mickell Lowery, Reginald Milton, Van Turner Jr., Michael Whaley and Sawyer. Mark Billingsley, David Bradford, Amber Mills and Morrison voted no. Commissioner Mick Wright recused himself, citing a conflict of interest because his employer does business with the court.