Juvenile Court Judge Dan Michael on Friday carved out a portion of his third annual State of the Court address to say that he welcomes juvenile justice reform being promoted by Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris and the Shelby County Commission.
“I know we’re all looking forward to new facilities,” Michael said. ”I’m especially looking forward to the new detention facility that is going to be built. It will better serve the children in our community.”
“…The facility we have is old and it’s not state of the art,” he said. “It’s dark. It’s small. It’s cramped. We need a facility that respects them…”
Michael also congratulated his staff and court workers for the U.S. Department of Justice’s decision last October to end federal monitoring of the courts.
“This could never have happened without each and every one of you,” Michael said in a packed room at a building at 600 Jefferson Ave.
The move by DOJ upset some county officials. Michael said he plans to continue with the monitoring and with the changes that were made under the justice department. He said hiring consultants such as Melissa Sickmund, who will analyze data and offer feedback on issues concerning minority juveniles, will keep the court accountable.
Sickmund heads the oldest juvenile justice research group in the country.
“We’re not stopping,” Michael said. “We’re still monitoring all the things that were set up under the memorandum.”
After the address, Michael said people who complain about the number of juveniles tried as adults may not be familiar with the nature of the crimes.
“Right now, in the detention center across the street, we’ve got nine juveniles charged with first-degree murder…40 or 45 charged with aggravated robbery where they took a gun and put it in someone’s face…
“When I’m challenged on those issues of transfers (to adult court) I simply ask, ‘Which one of those children do you want to take home with you? …You make the decision.'”
In his address, Michael said he is hopeful about the Youth Assessment Center, a pilot program the county will use as an alternative to the juvenile justice system for some children who commit minor offenses. He said the program opens April 1.
Michael said the court has been named a model court by the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges, and he challenged his staff to help him keep it that way.
“We’re going to continue with improvements, enhanced security measures, new docket display monitors…” Michael said. “We’re also going to continue trauma training of the whole staff…”
Michael said he promotes diversity, adding that his bench may be the most diverse in the country with seven African-American magistrate judges and eight female magistrate judges.
While “dollars are tight,” Michael said he would push on for the funding the court needs to continue to operate effectively and allow workers to do their jobs.
“Topping that list is equitable pay for staff, making your pay comparable to others who are doing the same job in other counties in Tennessee,” Michael said.
“My challenge to you today is simple, let’s continue to make great things happen,” Michael said. “Lets keep in our minds the unified goal of helping the children and families of Memphis and Shelby County to have confidence in this court…
“Let’s use criticism and unfair judgments about us as stepping stones.”