The Justice Department is using its enforcement authority to prompt defense system reform.  In December 2012, the Department’s Civil Rights Division entered into a groundbreaking Memorandum of Agreement with the Juvenile Court of Memphis and Shelby County, Tennessee, that could serve as a model for future efforts to guarantee access to counsel.  For the first time, the Department used its authority under the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, 42 USC § 14141, to address constitutional violations within a juvenile justice system.  The Agreement required the Shelby County Public Defender’s Office to establish a dedicated juvenile defender unit in the public defender’s office that will be independent of the court and will have the structure and resources to provide ethical and zealous representation for children.  An April 2012 DOJ Findings report noted, “Vigorous advocacy by defense counsel ensures that the youth’s voice is heard in the process and a fair, just, and appropriate result is achieved.”

The Memorandum of Agreement is comprehensive in its recognition of the importance of counsel.  Along with establishing a specialized unit for juvenile defense, it also requires Shelby County to provide special training for juvenile defenders, including training on trial/advocacy skills and knowledge of adolescent development; ensures that juvenile defenders have appropriate administrative support, reasonable workloads, and sufficient resources; and calls for the implementation of attorney practice standards for juvenile defenders.  The Memorandum of Agreement also laid out Performance Metrics,  the number of children represented by the Juvenile Defender office and by private counsel, the stage of the juvenile justice process at which counsel was appointed, and the average caseload of each Juvenile Defender.  

“In Shelby County, Tennessee, the Civil Rights Division took a comprehensive look at what was necessary to uphold the constitutional rights of all children appearing before the Juvenile Court,” said Thomas Perez, Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights.  “To secure those rights, access to qualified, well-trained counsel – no matter what your income level – is essential, and this agreement will make sure children have those protections.”

Updated October 20, 2014