By John Semien, Special to The New Tri-State Defender
What should be done when a report by a U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) monitor eyeing Shelby County Juvenile Court says that flaws remain and that they are harming African-American children?
The report, which started circulating this week, comes after the DOJ put an end to its six-year oversight of the Juvenile Court operation. Local officials sent a letter to two of the three DOJ monitors asking them to complete their final reports despite termination of their oversight duties. A second report is due later this month.
Shelby County Commissioner Tami Sawyer on Wednesday said the county would have to find a way to correct the flaws cited in the Dec. 10 report by DOJ monitor Sandra Simkins.
“We have to have a lot of oversight in the juvenile court,” Sawyer said. “I think the report shows we were right to have concerns about the Department of Justice pulling oversight. And so, as the report says, the decision to not continue monitoring was premature and Black kids are at risk.”
“(We) as a commission need to do some investigating about what we can do to make sure they are protected,” Sawyer said. “We need to pull up our big boy pants and make it happen.”
Simkins’ monitoring report refers to a “deeply flawed” court system and an agency that enables a “culture of intimidation” that hampers lawyers appointed to defend the youths.
Justice Department officials announced the ending of federal oversight of juvenile court on Oct. 19. The memorandum of agreement between county and federal officials that brought about the oversight was signed in 2012. It came about after the DOJ reported:
• Systemic discrimination against African-American children,
• Unsafe confinement conditions and
• Failure to provide due process to youth appearing for proceedings.
“Despite the duration of the Memorandum of Agreement and the notable progress in many areas, the structure of the Juvenile Court of Memphis and Shelby County remains deeply flawed, enabling a culture of intimidation that undermines due process,” Simkins, a due process monitor, wrote in her 60-page report.
Shelby County Commission Chairman Van Turner said he agreed with Sawyer that in the absence of oversight from the DOJ, the county should fashion its own remedy.
“We need to get that done,” he said.
In October, the County Commission approved a resolution, which Turner sponsored, proclaiming a vote of no confidence in the U.S. Department of Justice’s decision to end federal oversight. He said at the time that while there was little chance the DOJ would change its mind, it was important for the County Commission to be heard on the issue.
Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris on Wednesday said his administration already has made several moves affecting Juvenile Court.
“We’re expanding the oversight that is brought to bear on kids that get caught up in the juvenile justice system,” Harris said. “For example, we have experts for each of the responsible divisions in juvenile justice matters.
“We have hired an expert to work with the juvenile court to make sure we are treating people fairly,” he said. “A new expert (was hired), I’m talking about in the last couple of weeks, a new expert to work with the Sheriff’s Office, to make sure the Sheriff’s Office is responding to some of the needs we’ve heard about in juvenile court.”
Harris also said he believes the county needs to rethink its approach to juvenile justice, to provide more classrooms so juveniles can go to class at least part of the day.
“Let’s at least have some green space and recreational space so they can see outdoors,” he said. “Let’s have free phone calls so they can stay connected to their families.”
The juveniles usually are kept 30 days on average, Harris said.
Juvenile Court Judge Dan Michael was reported out of the country Wednesday and unavailable for comment.