The Shelby County Board of Commissioners on Monday passed a resolution urging the US Department of Justice to oversee county juvenile detention centers after reports of racial disparities.
According to Memphis Shelby County Crime Commission, overall violent crime rates increased 12.1% from previous years. The charges for violent minors fell by 17.8% and the charges for juvenile offenders fell by 8.0%. These reductions can be attributed to intervention programs, the commission aiming at reducing delinquency by 30% in 2021.
In 2012, reports revealed that Memphis Shelby County juvenile courts had failed to protect the constitutional rights of children in juvenile courts. The Shelby County government agreed to the US Department of Justice (DOJ) taking care of the oversight, and in 2018 county officials terminated the deal and returned authority to the juvenile court of Memphis and Shelby County.
County-wide juvenile justice consortium(CJJC), a citizen-led council created in the original agreement to hold the juvenile justice system accountable and continued to oversee the courts. In September, the group released a 10-page report detailing that the juvenile court had yet to meet specifications initially recommended by the DOJ to improve conditions.
As we seek a fairer and more equitable Shelby County, it is impossible to do so without examining the astounding statistics of our criminal justice system and nowhere is this more evident than in our youth justice system.
– Janiece J. Lee, Memphis Interfaith Coalition for Action and Hope
Although the court released reports on juvenile detention centers, the CJJC did not have access to data to explain why more black children were being transferred to adult facilities at higher rates. For this reason, the CJJC recommended that the DOJ return to Shelby County.
Last week the Shelby County Law Enforcement, Corrections and Courts Committee gave the resolution a favorable recommendation to pass during the full Shelby County commission agenda.
Several civil rights activists on Monday urged commissioners to restore the return of the DOJ to Shelby County
“As we are looking for a moIn Fair and Equitable Shelby County, it is impossible to do this without examining the staggering statistics of our criminal justice system, and nowhere is this more evident than in our youth justice system, ”said Janiece J. Lee, vice president of the Memphis Interfaith Coalition for Action and Hope.
In 2017, almost half of all young people transferrred to adult facilities in Tennessee came from Shelby County, making 92 children, Lee said. Davidson County only transferred four.
In 2020, the human rights organization, Human rights for children, ranked Tennessee as one of the six states with the worst records for protecting children during criminal proceedings. Other states includeded were Alabama, Georgia, Maryland, Mississippi and Wyoming.
Representatives of the juvenile justice system said the allegations were a surprise and are currently working on an investigation requested by the commissioners.
“I don’t know where the communication breakdown is because I think most committee members understand that while we don’t always agree, I don’t think it’s necessary. What is needed is to provide you with what we have in our possession, and I am committed to doing so, ”said Pam Skelton, Executive Director of the Juvenile Court. “What I would ask is that we go back to the procedure we were in when the Department of Justice was here, so that there is no misunderstanding and no communication goes wrong.”
The Shelby County Sheriff’s Office also released a response. Since 2015, the department has been working with juvenile courts to improve juvenile detention centers, and by 2018 they had met 38 requirements to comply with the DOJ. When the deal was terminated, Sheriff Floyd Bonner hired a consultant, Dr. David Roush, to regularly advise the department.
“We can all respectfully agree to disagree, but I think the heart of the sheriff is to work with anyone who wants to help these children,” he added. said Debra Fessenden, policy advisor for Bonner.
The commissioners voted 7-4 in favor of adopting the resolution. Commissioners Brandon Morrison, Mark Billingsley, David Bradford and Amber Mills were in the minority.