For those who feared the worse, the U.S. Department of Justice’s move to pull back from multiple parts of an agreement to oversee Shelby County Juvenile court is less of a blow than expected.
Cardell Orrin, with the education advocacy group STAND for Children, said, “Yes, there was a fear” when asked if he and others had feared the Justice Department would honor a request made in June to completely end oversight of Shelby County Juvenile Court.
That request was reflected in a letter sent to U.S. Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions’ office. It came from Shelby County Mayor Mark H. Luttrell Jr., Sheriff Bill Oldham and Juvenile Court Judge Dan Michael.
“So yes, there was a fear that they knew something that we didn’t know or that we have a Justice Department that would be willing to pull the oversight and accountability that the previous administration had brought to the table,” Orrin said.
Concern over the Operation of Juvenile Court ratcheted up in 2012 after a Justice Department inquiry showed confinement conditions were unsafe, African-American children were subject to discrimination and the due-process standard was not being met for youth relative to court proceedings.
Orrin said it was clear that there are concerns that have not been remedied. “I think it is good that they are not completely removing the oversight.”
Deidre Malone, president of the Memphis Branch NAACP, echoed that thought.
“I’m glad to see that they are still monitoring some aspects of Juvenile Court. I don’t disagree that there have been some improvements. I think Judge Michael and his team have shared that with many of us. The end result for me is what is in the best interest of our children that are going through that court process,” Malone said.
“I am really, really glad that the Justice Department has decided to keep oversight in place. It’s limited but it’s still oversight.”
Malone said the Memphis Branch NAACP Criminal Justice Committee would be in monitoring mode.
“We’ve been invited to come down (to Juvenile Court) and take a tour and see what they are doing and all the changes they have made to date and we plan on doing that.”
There are 14 oversight areas that the DOJ is lifting. The decision was communicated through a letter and prompted a statement from Shelby County Juvenile Court.
“Today’s letter from the DOJ acknowledges not only the accomplishments achieved, but also the substantial progress that has been made toward compliance of all provisions of the agreement,” the statement read.
“Such progress toward our common goal would not have been possible without the dedication and commitment of all Juvenile Court employees, the Shelby County Sheriff’s Department, and representatives of Shelby County Government for whom this court is deeply grateful.”
A distinctly different sounding statement came from Josh Spickler, executive director of Just City, a group advocating for criminal justice reform.
“The due process violations, deplorable housing conditions, and chronic and excessively harsh treatment of minority children that led the U.S. Department of Justice to intervene in Shelby County’s Juvenile Court five years ago were as unconscionable as they were unconstitutional,” Spickler said in the statement.
“This community should not forget these conditions too hastily, and we are gravely concerned that any premature departure by the Justice Department’s monitors will lead to exactly that kind of community amnesia.”
Noting the upcoming 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s death, Spickler said Just City and its allies would “stay more vigilant than ever in our efforts to protect the individuals – particularly the poor black youth who compromise 99 percent of Juvenile Court’s cases – who have the least power and political relevance to our community’s leaders. Despite what local politicians may find inconvenient or bothersome, these children need our support more than ever.”
Stripped from the agreement directing DOJ oversight are areas connected with:
- Due process training;
- Hearings to determine if a case involving a youth should be directed to an adult court;
- The safety of children;
- Probable cause.
In addition to monitoring Juvenile Court, Orrin said STAND and groups it is linked with are “trying to find additional ways to address the situation. We’ve been looking at different ways that we could through county support or county commissioners or whether there is state legislation or other ways that we can find to address the challenges that still remain.”
STAND for Children, he said, also is focused on “the other needs we have outside of education. We are focusing on how are youth are treated by the criminal justice system and breaking the school-to-prison pipeline.”