Friday, September 4, 2015

U.S. Dept. of Justice Focuses on Juvenile Justice

By Professor Kevin Lapp
This was originally posted on Juvenile Justice

The U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division has recently been focusing some significant attention on the administration of juvenile justice.

In 2012, it released a report on the Shelby County, Tennessee juvenile justice system, finding that Shelby County’s juvenile justice system failed to provide constitutionally required due process for those accused of delinquency and failed to provide equal protection under law for accused African-Americans. Later that same year DoJ announced an agreement that included a series of corrective measures.

In late 2012, the DoJ filed a lawsuit, United States v. City of Meridian (Mississippi), et. al., challenging the Meridian Police Department’s practice of arresting youth for minor school-based offenses without probable cause and Lauderdale County Youth Court judges’s practice of incarcerating youth on probation for school suspensions and expulsions. The suit led to a June 2015 settlement that promises to end the arrests of youth for “behavior that is appropriately addressed as a school discipline issue” and that limits the state’s ability to incarcerate youth for violations of probation that would not otherwise be detainable offenses.

A couple of weeks ago, the DoJ issued a report regarding the St. Louis County, Missouri juvenile justice system. St. Louis County became national news in August, 2014 when protests followed the shooting there of 18 year-old Michael Brown. The DoJ’s investigation into St. Louis County began almost a year before Mr. Brown was killed. According to the report, the St. Louis County Family Court fails to provide constitutionally required due process of law for those accused of being delinquent, and fails to provide equal protection under the law for accused African-American youth.

Specifically, the report found that youth in delinquency proceedings often go without any (much less adequate) legal representation during crucial stages of their cases, that the court fails to adequately protect the privilege against self-incrimination, that the court fails to ensure that guilty pleas are entered knowingly and voluntarily, and that the organizational structure is rife with conflicts of interests and contrary to separation of powers principles.

With regard to equal protection, the report found that, even after controlling for factors such as age, gender, risk and the severity of the allegations, Black youth are
  • almost 1.5 times more likely than White youth to have their cases handled formally (instead of diverted),
  • two-and-half times more likely to be detained pretrial than White youth,
  • more than two-and-a-half times more likely than White youth to be placed in custody after adjudication, and
  • almost three times as likely to be committed to restrictive settings for a violation of probation than White youth.
There is much more to be said about these recent DoJ efforts (which include an ongoing investigation in Dallas County, Texas), the findings in them, and what they might promise for the future. Future posts will look more closely at things like access to juvenile courtrooms, the role of probation services, the role and burden of juvenile defenders, and more.

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