Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris does not want to end federal oversight of the Juvenile Court of Memphis and Shelby County until more is done to ensure the welfare of juvenile offenders.
“He (Harris) does not want oversight to end until substantive progress has been made in the treatment of our juvenile offenders,” Danielle Inez, Harris’ administration spokeswoman said in a text statement Tuesday.
The new county mayor’s position on federal oversight of Juvenile Court is in contrast to former County Mayor Mark H. Luttrell Jr.’s stance. In requests last year to the U.S. Department of Justice, Luttrell pushed to end the 2012 memorandum of agreement between the DOJ, Shelby County and Juvenile Court.
Harris on Monday announced that he is turning to attorney Herman Morris Jr. to replace Judge Paul Summers as settlement coordinator and that Summers’ contract would end in October.
“The recent election brought sweeping changes to county government,” said Harris in a statement released to the media. “One of the mandates that came out of this election was that we take a fresh approach to some of our challenges, like juvenile justice, which have endured for years.
“Citizens expect a thorough, sober review of the challenges in our juvenile justice system. They expect Shelby County Government to rehabilitate as many young lives as possible,” Harris said.
“It’s time to put our heads down, wipe our eyes clear, and get to the task. I want to thank Judge Summers for his service to Shelby County and his long career in public service. Additionally, I want to thank our new county attorney for facilitating a smooth transition.”
Luttrell, Juvenile Court Judge Dan H. Michael and former Sheriff Bill Oldham discussed ending the agreement with U.S. Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions when he visited Memphis in 2017.
They also sent a formal letter to DOJ saying the shortcomings pinpointed in the DOJ investigation had been fully rectified.
Diane Brown, office manager for the Shelby County Mayor’s Office, said Luttrell traveled to Washington, D.C. to press the county’s case for ending the agreement and asked Harris to accompany him. She said Harris had not been sworn in as mayor and did not go.
Shelby County Commission Chairman Van Turner said, “We have a new county commission and a new mayor. It’s a good time to take a fresh approach to some of these challenges.
“Many of the youngsters who get caught up in this world of criminal justice can be saved. We want to eliminate as much contact as possible for our troubled youth at the beginning,” Turner said. “I’ve been briefed on the changes regarding Mr. Morris. As the chairman, I look forward to the item coming before the Commission for its consideration.”
Interim County Attorney Marlinee Iverson is finalizing the new contract between Morris and Shelby County government. The contract is expected to be executed in the next few weeks.
Morris on Wednesday said he is happy about the arrangement and that, “I’m pleased the mayor is moving in that direction but I think it wouldn’t be proper to say anything else at this time.”
Morris said he wanted to familiarize himself with the agreement before commenting on it.
The 2012 memorandum of agreement with the Justice Department came in the wake of a DOJ investigation that found systematic discrimination against African-American children, unsafe confinement conditions and failures to provide due process to youth appearing for proceedings in court. While the DOJ has ended portions of the agreement, a federal monitor said in June that problems remain.
In a letter dated June 29 from county attorney Kathryn Pascover to the DOJ, the county asked that the remaining sections of the memorandum of agreement be terminated.
The letter included this reference:
“Moreover, for the reasons set forth herein below, we respectfully submit that the time has come for the parties to conclude the Agreement, and on behalf of Shelby County and the Juvenile Court, we respectfully ask the DOJ to terminate in full.”
However, the most recent monitor’s report, dated June 6, cites concerns that include psychiatric evaluations and the number of minors still transferred to adult court. It recommends continued oversight.
Sheriff Floyd Bonner Jr. on Wednesday said the Memorandum of Agreement’s provision governing the Juvenile Detention Center has 41 “parts.” Thirty-eight of them “have either been terminated or are in compliance as determined by the Department of Justice,” he said in a written statement.
“We have moved forward thanks to the assistance and guidance of the DOJ, the consultants, the Office of Juvenile Justice Detention Prevention, and the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative. We want to achieve an end to oversight because the DOJ has determined that we have met all commitments,” Bonner said in the statement.
“It has always been the goal of the Sheriff’s Office to become a model facility and that is my commitment to this community. However, I promise that I will never stop seeking training and assistance from experts.
“We look forward to working with Herman Morris as the settlement coordinator.”
Turner said he believes Morris will be a “welcome change,” although he could only speak for himself since Harris hasn’t yet presented to the entire commission.
Turner, who opposed the request to end Department of Justice oversight, said he believes Harris has a “different perspective” from that advocated by Luttrell, Oldham and Michael.
“I’m hopeful that Mayor Harris will walk back at least the second letter that was sent out,” Turner said. “My assumption is that he’s supportive of oversight during this period while we still have to make improvements and ensure that the changes which have been made stay.”
Morris has nearly 40 years of legal experience and has previously served as president, chief executive officer and general counsel for Memphis, Light, Gas and Water, the city’s public utility company.
He has also worked as attorney for the City of Memphis. Morris is founder and principal attorney at The Morris Law Firm.