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Fixing Juvenile Court: ‘We can’t let this stand’

A unified response to the findings of the U.S. Justice Department’s recently released investigation of Shelby County Juvenile Court is driving the push for a town hall meeting being.

A unified response to the findings of the U.S. Justice Department’s recently released investigation of Shelby County Juvenile Court is driving the push for a town hall meeting being spearheaded by Shelby County Commissioner Henri Brooks.

The meeting is set to begin at 5:30 p.m. next Thursday (May 10) at the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Labor Center at 485 Beale St., the headquarters of Local 1733 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). Initially planned for this weekend, the session was reset to work around the Memphis in May Beale Street Musicfest.

Begun in August 2009, the Justice Department’s two-year comprehensive study concludes that Juvenile Court is operated in an unsafe, obsolete manner that targets African-American youth for more punitive and harmful treatment. Released last week, the study is the first of its kind in U.S. history. The investigation accessed more than 66,000 files.

“There is no way we can let this stand,” Brooks told The New Tri-State Defender on Wednesday. “We have to come together and demand that real change is made down there. We have the facts in hand and we must move on them now.”

Brooks met with the Baptist Ministerial Association on Tuesday to plan the town hall meeting. The group has appointed the Rev. Leonard Dawson and the Rev. Ralph White as a committee to assist Brooks, whom many credit as the consistent force that brought to light long- held suspicions about Juvenile Court. In 2007, Brooks petitioned the federal government to look into the plight of children brought to the court.

“I was just doing my job. So many people kept coming to me about Juvenile Court that I had to do something,” said Brooks. “And without people knowing it, the ministers backed me up then, even petitioning to reimburse the county to pay my airfare to Washington. They have been behind this all the way.”

It is imperative that a strong group be assembled to demand that the reforms identified and recommended in the report are actually acted upon, and that proof be shown, said Brooks.

“We cannot fall for them putting together some fly-by-night watchdog group and expect them to speak for us. The black community can speak for itself and we demand immediate attention to this report. Now is the time to unify in one voice, demand change and demand accountability.”

‘With dignity and respect’

The 66-page Justice Department is stunning in its directness. Consider this excerpt from page 36:

“…a Black child had odds of receiving a warning that was still substantially lower, by approximately one third, than the odds of a White child receiving a warning. In other words, the impact of race on the result is not a chance event.”

Juvenile Court Chief Administrator Larry Scroggs on Wednesday said the administration of Juvenile Court Judge Curtis Person is already moving to make changes recommended by the report.

Just the night before, Scroggs had walked out on a tense citizens’ meeting concerning Juvenile Court. The next day, he had no reluctance to talk with the TSD in his office. Getting there means passing through Juvenile Court hallways where a quote from Judge Person is prominently displayed multiple times.

The quote reads, “Everyone who comes in this building will be treated with dignity and respect.”

A former state representative who has worked in juvenile justice in several capacities, Scroggs said, “The part (in the Justice Department report) that was unfair is that it did not account for the number of modifications to procedure that we have made. Our main objection is that the report stated that race still matters in decision-making. But we make decisions on a case- by-case basis. The data was based on the past before Judge Person came into office. When the complaint was first filed Jan. 15, 2007, it was filed historically.”

While there are logistics to be worked out, Scroggs said adding a Sunday Juvenile Court hearing clearly has to be addressed.

“One of the things they (investigators) were most displeased with is that a child would be brought in by law enforcement after 10:30 pm on a Friday (and) was having to wait until after 1 p.m. on Monday,” he said. “That is still in compliance with state law, but the Justice Department was not please with it.  So we are going to have detention hearings on Sunday.”

By the numbers

According to Scroggs, law enforcement brought 5,249 juveniles to the Juvenile Court detention center intake in 2011. After the initial screenings and detention hearings the court detained 479 of those. That’s about 9 percent. The number of youth transported to Juvenile Court in 2011 is about 1,200 less than was transported in 2010.

“There are several reasons for that, but two in particular,” said Scroggs. “One is the SHAPE (School House Adjustment Program Enterprise) program, which we partnered with the Memphis City Schools to develop, which has created a 45 percent drop in the number of kids brought here from the schools.

“The other is the summons program, which has created a 30 percent drop in transports for certain offences. Today we have about 48 kids in the detention center. Three years ago it would not be unusual to have double that number. Some days it’s as low as 14.”

Scroggs said one of the things he wishes the public would understand is that the youth in the detention centers are not there because of minor offences.

“Some have committed rape, even murder. A child will not be put in the detention center for a minor offense. It is only for those children that may present a danger to themselves or the community. And most have a history with Juvenile Court,” Scroggs said.

“One of the most surprising things I’ve learned in my six years here is that only about 500 kids commit the most serious offenses. You may have 11,000 delinquent charges, but only that 500 that commit the worse crimes. In 2011, it was less than 400.”

One of the most alarming findings in the Justice Department report is the confirmed use of an immobilizing device called a restraining chair. A violently unruly or disturbed child would be strapped into it to keep from harming themselves. Scroggs wonders how they will be handled now.

“There were three,” he said, “but they’ve been removed.”



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