Following a comprehensive investigation, the Justice Department today announced its findings regarding the Juvenile Court of Memphis and Shelby County (JCMSC), and the Shelby County Juvenile Detention Center in Tennessee. The Justice Department found that the juvenile court fails to provide constitutionally required due process to all children appearing for delinquency proceedings, that the court’s administration of juvenile justice discriminates against African-American children, and that its detention center violates the substantive due process rights of detained youth by not providing them with reasonably safe conditions of confinement. The investigation, opened in August 2009, was conducted under provision of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
“This report is a step toward our goal of improving the juvenile court, increasing the public’s confidence in the juvenile justice system, and maintaining public safety,” said Thomas E. Perez, Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division. “Upholding the constitutional rights of children appearing before the court is necessary to achieve these ends. The department will work with Memphis leadership to create a comprehensive blueprint that will create sustainable reforms in the juvenile justice system.”
“While the Civil Rights Division findings are serious and compelling, I am encouraged that the leadership and staff of the Juvenile Court of Memphis, Shelby County and the Shelby Juvenile Detention Center have demonstrated that they intend to take immediate action to remedy the various constitutional deficiencies identified,” said Edward L. Stanton III, U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Tennessee. “Our central objective is to ensure that our juvenile justice system works and adequately protects the rights of all youths who come before juvenile court. We look forward to working together to reach this goal, and ultimately establishing a model juvenile court.”
In January 2010 and 2011, with the full cooperation of JCSMC Judge Curtis S. Person, Justice Department attorneys visited the court and detention center with consultants in the fields of juvenile representation, statistical analysis and juvenile protection from harm. The Justice Department and consultants interviewed magistrates, probation counselors, attorneys, administrators and children appearing before the court on delinquency matters. As part of the investigation, the department’s attorneys and consultants conducted an in-depth analysis of over 60,000 youth files and reviewed policies and procedures, recordings of hearings, court documents, case files, detention material and statistical data.
The Justice Department found a pattern or practice of unconstitutional conduct in several areas, including:
- Failure to provide timely and adequate notice of charges to children appearing on delinquency proceedings;
- Failure to protect youth from self-incrimination during probation conferences;
- Failure to hold timely probable cause hearings for youth arrested without a warrant;
- Failure to provide adequate due process protections for children before transferring them to the adult criminal court;
- The disparate treatment of African-American children; and
- Failure to adequately protect detained youth from self-harm and unnecessary and excessive restraints.
The Justice Department has received extensive cooperation from Judge Person who encouraged court personnel to provide full access to the information necessary for our review. Judge Person and his staff have made improvements since the department began its investigation and demonstrated a desire to continue in a collaborative manner to remedy the deficiencies within the juvenile court and its detention center. The department welcomes this opportunity to continue working with Judge Person and the other stakeholders to improve the court’s services to those children appearing before it and housed in the detention center.
This investigation was conducted by the Special Litigation Section of the Civil Rights Division.