Justice Department Enters into Agreement to Reform the Family Court of St. Louis County, Missouri
The Justice Department announced today that it has entered into a comprehensive agreement with the St. Louis County Family Court to resolve the department’s findings of serious and systemic violations of juvenile due process and equal protection rights.
The agreement aims to ensure that the family court protects the constitutional rights of children throughout their court proceedings and requires the family court to address racial disparities among youth in different stages of the juvenile justice process. This is the fourth agreement the department has entered into under the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 to address constitutional violations within a juvenile justice system.
“The harms and inequities in our juvenile justice system threaten to limit the opportunities and derail the futures of America’s youth,” said Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Vanita Gupta, head of the Civil Rights Division. “We applaud the St. Louis County Family Court for taking these important steps to begin implementing critical reforms. We hope that juvenile courts around the country review this agreement and use it as a model to protect the constitutional rights of all children.”
The agreement provides for comprehensive reforms aimed at remedying the due process and equal protection violations the department found during its investigation, including:
- Court-Appointed Counsel: The agreement requires the court to double the juvenile defense counsel currently available to represent indigent youth and to ensure that defense counsel are timely appointed to all juveniles. The agreement also requires that the court appoint private attorneys in a uniform and transparent fashion and that all juvenile defenders practicing in the court receive training.
- Privilege Against Self-Incrimination: The agreement prohibits police interrogations at the juvenile detention center unless an attorney is present to represent the youth and requires the court to ensure that juveniles understand their rights before waiving them. The agreement prohibits deputy juvenile officers – the court staff responsible for virtually every aspect of family court operations – from discussing with the young person the substance of the allegations and/or using incriminating statements made by the youth in subsequent delinquency proceedings.
- Adversarial Probable Cause Hearings: The agreement requires that during detention hearings the court examine whether there is probable cause to believe that the youth has committed the alleged offense and permits the youth to challenge the evidence admitted to support probable cause.
- Standardized Plea Hearings: The court will adopt a standardized format for hearings to accept juveniles’ pleas to delinquency charges to ensure that pleas are knowing and voluntary.
- Deputy Juvenile Officer Training: Deputy juvenile officers must receive competency-based training that addresses the role and responsibilities of juvenile defense counsel in delinquency proceedings as well as the due process rights of youth. This includes the youth’s right to counsel, privilege against self-incrimination and the potential consequences (including collateral consequences) for a youth who is found to be delinquent.
- Collection, Analysis and Response to Court Data Regarding Disproportionate Minority Contact (DMC): The court must collect and analyze data about the gender, race, age and juvenile offense of youth in the system, create bi-annual reports and make changes based on what those reports reveal.
- Public Meetings: The agreement requires that the court advertise and hold public meetings to review and address the biannual DMC reports.
- Training: The agreement requires that court personnel who are directly involved in decision-making processes at the court or the juvenile office focused on juvenile delinquency participate in training addressing DMC.
The investigation, opened in November 2013, was conducted by the Civil Rights Division’s Special Litigation Section under provisions of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994. In July 2015, the department issued a findings letter concluding that the St. Louis County Family Court violates the 14th Amendment of the Constitution by failing to ensure that juveniles facing delinquency charges receive adequate due process protections and failing to provide black youth in the juvenile justice system with equal protection under the law.
The department has opened four cases examining whether juvenile justice systems comply with children’s rights since 2009. In 2012, the department settled its first investigation of this kind, reaching an agreement with the Juvenile Court of Shelby County, Tennessee, that calls for comprehensive due process, equal protection and facility reforms. In June 2015, the department announced a partial settlement of its lawsuit alleging violations of children’s due process rights in Lauderdale County, Mississippi. In March 2015, the department announced its investigation of due process and disability discrimination issues in the Dallas County, Texas, Truancy Court and Juvenile District Courts.