Leaders ask DOJ to stop juvenile court oversight, advocates disagree

Updated: Jun. 19, 2017 at 6:16 PM CDT
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MEMPHIS, TN (WMC) - Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell said there is no longer a need for federal oversight of the Shelby County Juvenile Court and is requesting Attorney General Jeff Sessions end it.

Luttrell is requesting an end to a memorandum of understanding that allowed DOJ to have oversight at Shelby County Juvenile Court since 2012. The memorandum was put into place because of racial inequalities in how juvenile cases were being handled.

Outside experts said big inequalities still exist and that's why the memorandum of Understanding is necessary.

For example, while 1 in 100 white youth offenders had their cases sent to a courtroom, more than 4 in 100 black youth offenders were referred to the court.

Luttrell was joined by the juvenile judge and county sheriff in signing an eight-page letter to Sessions proclaiming conditions have improved at juvenile court.

This request comes on the heels of Sessions' visit to Memphis last month.

"We have made progress. We've made significant process," Luttrell said. "We have 100 percent complied."

Luttrell said the request to end the DOJ monitoring of juvenile court came up when AG Sessions was in town in May.

The letter said it is "time to praise the work that has been accomplished."

"We are committed to doing what we need to do to improve our juvenile justice system. There's still much work to be done," Luttrell said.

Among the improvements cited by county leaders, and a report released in March 2017, youth rights are better represented by public defenders. The numbers and rates of use of force have also declined.

In addition, the confinement numbers and use of physical restraints have also decreased.

However, the last equal protection report used 2015 data and showed black youth were referred to court at a higher rate than white youth. Two black youth were detained for every one white youth.

"We have made some progress, but there is certainly no room for celebration when we treat black children different than the white children," Josh Spickler of Just City said.

Spicker said federal oversight of judicial justice in Memphis should not end because there are still inequalities left unaddressed.

He said the request for the end of the oversight is a political ploy.

"There's a political opportunity here that Shelby County leadership is taking," Spickler said.

Spickler is not alone in wanting the federal government to continue its oversight. Congressman Steve Cohen (TN-09) contacted the Department of Justice and asked them to continue monitoring the juvenile justice system.

"I am concerned about efforts to end Shelby County's agreement with the Justice Department to address the routine violation of due process and equal protection at the Juvenile Court," Cohen said. "While progress has been made since 2012, there are still reports of race playing a factor in court hearings and reports of the juvenile detention facilities becoming more dangerous. I was disturbed by DOJ's initial findings and I was proud to work with then -Attorney General Eric Holder and others at the Department of Justice to help resolve this matter in a fair and transparent way. I urge the Department of Justice to continue to monitor the Shelby County juvenile justice system to ensure the constitutional standards of all children are met."

The recent filing in March 2017 doesn't have updated equal protection data in it, but in Shelby County "fewer minority youth are progressing through the juvenile justice system."

The mayor said he has not heard from Sessions.

Shelby County Commissioners are expected to discuss the request Wednesday.

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