It is an office that runs on paperwork and affects a large number of the juveniles who come from broken homes and who get into legal trouble in Shelby County. That makes the clerk of the Juvenile Court of Memphis and Shelby County one of the most important positions for voters to ponder in the upcoming election.
Memphis City Council member Janice Fullilove is running against Harold C. Smith and Morrie E. “Jimmy” Noel in the Democratic primary. Republicans Bobby Simmons and Robert Hill are seeking the GOP nomination.
Hill, executive director of Government and Legislative Affairs for the Shelby County Trustee’s Office, vows to make the Juvenile Court Clerk’s office more efficient and responsive to the people it serves. That, said Hill, would lighten the financial burden on those who often find themselves in an endless cycle of piled-up child support bills and attorney fees.
The clerk’s office is a separate entity from juvenile court. It keeps the court’s records, collects fees and other monies, employs process servers and provides the stenographers for the courts. It’s also where most people get in trouble with the courts when they fall behind in child support payments or encounter other issues that deal with money. This is especially hard on the poor, Hill said.
The biggest problem is that the system is “cumbersome and it is very antiquated,” Hill said, pointing out that much of the paperwork has to be physically carried down to the courts to be filed, a fact he said frustrates lawyers and people who have to represent themselves.
Hill said another example is that people who get behind in child support payments can lose their driver’s licenses, which often causes transportation problems that lead to them losing their job. Some end up in jail and emerge in a deeper financial.
“You don’t have the ability to do online filings,” he said. “It’s a cycle of bureaucracy that keeps the poor, poor. … I will be working with the state legislature in order to try to modify and change these laws so that they make more sense. …”
Hill said he would work with churches and other community organizations to help strengthen the safety net for children. He envisions a wider mentoring program for disadvantaged young people, adding that the clerk’s office needs to be transformed to fit “inner city problems that are not being addressed.”
Simmons worked 35 years in the sheriff’s office, retiring as captain. His tenure included time spent supervising the deputies that serve as bailiffs in the courts. He, too, is concerned about the filing system and other efficiency problems at the clerk’s office.
“I’m all for improvement,” he said. “They have so many files up there something needs to be done about it. I’m for looking at the whole picture to look to see what can be done to better the place.”
Simmons plans to work with legislators to see what improvements can be made in terms of laws.
Asserting that the main responsibility of the juvenile court clerk is to stay on top of the paper work that goes with administering the juvenile court system and to keep track of the money, Simmons said his GOP opponent does not have “the background to go with that job.
As for the children, Simmons said, “Anybody who has an idea that will help the kids, I’m all about it. I’m big on kids for sure.”
Smith, who is an assistant principal at Crump Elementary School, says the problems faced by the courts have been ongoing. He emphasized that the clerk’s office is still operating to help meet a memorandum of agreement that was entered into with the Department of Justice seven years ago. That agreement came after an investigation of the court concerning issues of due process and abuse.
Smith said education is an important key to making the clerk’s office more efficient and responsive to the needs of children and parents. This means education for the children and for their parents concerning truancy and efficiency as far as the collection of funds, he said.
He sees the challenges affecting the clerk’s office being linked to time consuming and cumbersome procedures that hamper the welfare of the children, along with poverty’s deep roots. He made the claim that about 20 percent of the juvenile defendants involved in criminal cases are not equipped to survive without being involved in some sort of criminal activity.
“There are some watchful eyes that need to be in place where children of color are not being mistreated,” Smith said. “We cannot afford to lose a core of children to the streets. You’ve got to make sure people know that you care.”
Smith praised the work of Juvenile Court Judge Dan H. Michael and said he hopes to be an ally to the courts.
“If the end goal is to have positive citizens coming out of the system then it shouldn’t be a disconnect,” Smith said. “You are serving the people who elected you to be there. I just want to go in and be an ally and an advocate for the young people who are down there.”
Smith said there are more resources available to help trouble youth than many parents realize and that there are some truancy programs that could be more effective with tweaking.
“At the end of the day, we’ve got to work together. I think we have to be the solution to these types of problems,” he said. “I want to make sure that there is a legacy of service when I leave.”
Fullilove plans to maintain the integrity and professionalism that she said has been established by Juvenile County Court Clerk Joy Touliatos.
“Joy has done a great job with the integrity of that office and I want to build on the same integrity,” Fullilove said. “I will continue to work toward the continuity of that office.”
Fullilove plans to begin by asking the office staff what problems need to be addressed.
“I want to get in there and see how I can help,” she said. “I’ve been a fighter all my life and I have fought on the council and I want to see how I can help. I know about the keeping of the records and all that and I’ll have someone to help me with that.”
Fullilove said her main concern is how the office impacts the lives of the children and their parents.
“I’m willing to get in there to do the best I can to serve the children in Memphis and the surrounding area,” she said. “It’s a very big job to come in and do what has to be done.”
She doesn’t think it would be right to presume to know what needs to be done before she actually gets in office and sees how it is operating.
“I do not know what the real problems are with that office,” she said. “I never like to hear any politician say, ‘I’m going to do.’ I need to get in there and see what is happening.”
With her political experience, drive and commitment to the welfare of children, Fullilove said, “There is something I can do.”
Noel said his schedule was too packed with other commitments to do an interview for this story.