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Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division Thomas E. Perez Speaks at Shelby County, Tenn., Press Conference


Memphis, TN
United States

We are here to discuss the results of our comprehensive investigation of the Juvenile Court of Memphis and Shelby County. Under federal laws, the Attorney General has the authority to investigate and take appropriate legal action to address and correct a pattern or practice of violations of the constitution or laws of the United States by government agencies responsible for the administration of juvenile justice.

In August 2009, the Justice Department began its investigation into allegations of due process and equal protection violations at the juvenile court and conditions of confinement at the juvenile detention center. Everyone has a shared interest in ensuring that the juvenile justice system in Memphis and Shelby County operates in a fair and constitutional manner. Our investigation focused on serious concerns brought to our attention by Shelby County residents and officials that children in the juvenile justice system were not receiving adequate due process protections, and that African-American children were being treated differently and more harshly.

Our investigation has been thorough and extensive. We toured the juvenile court in 2010 and 2011 with various experts in the juvenile justice field. We worked in collaboration with our partners at the U.S. Attorney’s office in Memphis, other sister agencies within the Department of Justice who have expertise in juvenile justice issues, including the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, and the department’s Access to Justice Office. We observed hearings, met with court personnel, reviewed documents and hearing transcripts, and met with community stakeholders. Our expert examined the juvenile court’s case data- more than 66,000 files- over a five year period, to determine how children’s cases were handled.

Throughout this process, we received full cooperation of the juvenile court, and I want to thank Judge Curtis Person and his staff for their helpfulness and professionalism throughout the process. Judge Person did not await the conclusion of our investigation to initiate reforms, and I am grateful for these efforts.

Notwithstanding the progress we have observed in a number of areas, we found serious and systemic failures in the juvenile court system in Memphis and Shelby County that violate the constitutional rights of children appearing before the court. We found three separate categories of constitutional violations.

First, we found the juvenile court violates the due process rights of children throughout the juvenile justice process. This finding applies to proceedings that impact all children who appear before the court on delinquency matters, regardless of race. These due process violations include:

1) Failing to provide timely and adequate notice of charges to children in advance of their hearings. The insufficient notice interferes with the ability to prepare for important hearings such as, for example, the trial to determine whether the child is guilty of the delinquent act charged;

2) Failing to hold timely probable cause hearings for children arrested without a warrant by not holding those hearings on weekends and holidays. What this means is that children experience needlessly lengthy detentions before a Magistrate conducts a hearing to determine whether there was probable cause for their arrest;

3) Failing to protect children from self incrimination during critical hearings. It is well settled that Miranda protections apply in juvenile proceedings; we observed repeated failures to protect children from self incrimination; and

4) Failing to provide adequate due process protections for children before transferring them to the adult criminal court. We found Magistrates making transfer decisions after making cursory or no inquiries into the child’s background or social factors which is required by the State’s law, after failing to hold a waiver hearing at all, or conducting a cursory review. This violates the 14th Amendment’s minimal requirements for transfer proceedings.

Second, we found that African-American children were treated differently during key points in the juvenile court process. We retained a nationally recognized expert to review the court’s data over a five year period. This analysis revealed that African-American children received disproportionately harsh treatment at different stages of the delinquency process.

In key phases of the process, we found that race was - in and of itself- a significant contributing factor, even after accountability for legal variables such as the nature of the charge, and prior records; and social variables such as age, gender and school attendance. Race was a statistically significant factor in determining whether a child would receive lenient treatment, such as a warning, or more serious sanction. 

                     African-American children were one-third less likely to receive a warning than white children, even after accounting for other factors such as prior contacts with the court, severity of the charges, gender and education.

                     An African-American child was more than twice as likely to be detained as a white child, even after controlling for other legal and social factors.

                     An African-American child was twice as likely as a white child to be recommended for transfer to adult court. This remained the case even after considering non-race factors, including the types of offenses, prior record, age and gender.

The racial disparities in the treatment of African-American children raise serious constitutional concerns under the equal protection clause.

The third area of finding relates to conditions of confinement. We reviewed the juvenile court’s detention facility and found several violations of the children’s right to reasonably safe conditions of confinement and right to be free from undue bodily restraints. We found use of pain compliance, such as the use of restraint chairs and pressure point tactics, and other problems that endanger the safety of the children detained in the facility.

The constitutional deficiencies we found have serious public safety implications. As a longtime prosecutor, I believe it is important to be smart on crime, and to implement constitutionally sound evidence based law enforcement strategies. Ensuring due process and equal protection is always a sound law enforcement strategy, because of our nation’s commitment to uphold the constitution and the values that underlie key constitutional protections. In addition, ensuring due process and equal protection is sound crime control. For instance, studies show that children who are transferred to adult court have a higher likelihood of re-offending and continuing anti-social behavior. As a result, ensuring due process and equal protection is not only a constitutional imperative, but can also reduce recidivism by preventing unnecessary transfers to adult court. In 2010, in the whole state of Tennessee, there were 390 transfers to adult court. Roughly one half of the transfers statewide came from Shelby County, and all but two of the children transferred to adult court were African-American.

We can and must improve this system, and let me discuss where we intend to go from here. We will continue to work with the court and the community to resolve these issues. Judge Person has already started to implement some recommended reforms, such as applying for and becoming a designated Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiatives site through the Anne E. Casey Foundation and working with the Memphis City Schools and Police Department to implement a summons in lieu of arrest program for a limited number of offenses. We look forward to working with Judge Person and the wider Shelby County community to develop solutions to these difficult issues. Judge Person, you are standing here with us today as we discuss our findings, and we will stand with you and the entire community in an inclusive process that will result in the development and implementation of a comprehensive blueprint for sustainable reform. The challenges confronting the system in Memphis exist in many communities across America. I am confident that we can transform the juvenile justice system in Memphis into a national model. Doing so is a law enforcement imperative, constitutional imperative, and a moral imperative.

Updated September 17, 2014