Embattled Juvenile Court to relinquish defense operations - Action News 5 - Memphis, Tennessee

Embattled Juvenile Court to relinquish defense operations

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*RRI: Relative Rate Index compares Disproportionate Minority Contact. *RRI: Relative Rate Index compares Disproportionate Minority Contact.
Shelby County Juvenile Court defense operations will be transferred to the Public Defender's Office after a federal investigation found the court "discriminates against black children." Shelby County Juvenile Court defense operations will be transferred to the Public Defender's Office after a federal investigation found the court "discriminates against black children."
MEMPHIS, TN -

(WMC-TV) – Court officials confirm Shelby County Juvenile Court defense operations will be transferred to the Public Defender's Office.

The change comes, after a federal investigation found juvenile court "discriminates against Black children."

In April, the Department of Justice released the findings of the investigation that said Black children in Shelby County Juvenile Court were less likely to receive diversion than White children, more likely to be detained, and more likely to be transferred to adult criminal court.

Shelby County Assistant Public Defender Josh Spickler sees Juvenile Court reform as an opportunity.

"We saw it as an opportunity, if given the right resources - and studied and prepared for in the right way - to really create a model for how we represent children," he explained.

The five-year investigation of Shelby County Juvenile Court found the court denied children due process.

Many times, the kids did not know the charges against them, and their own attorneys - appointed by Juvenile Court - would propose skipping witness testimony.

"If we can keep them out of the adult system, we can sometimes save their lives," noted Spickler.  "That's why the transfer hearings are so important."

Spickler says rehabilitation is the foundation for juvenile defense, as opposed to the punishment model for adults.

However, some laws exist in both courts, such as Miranda Rights.  The DOJ report said children in Juvy court were questioned without being told they had the right to remain silent and have an attorney present.

"That is what protects a child from self-incrimination is having an advocate next to them as early as possible," pointed out.

The DOJ also said Juvenile Court violated timely hearings laws.  The court took off weekends and holidays leaving many children in custody three or more days without probable cause hearings.

"The public defender would have to have advocates in place whenever they're needed to make sure the children are given a hearing as soon as possible," Spickler projected.

The new system would also work to prevent other deficiencies the DOJ found, including excessive bond amounts and failure to get translators for Spanish-speaking children.

Spickler says full reform could take years to get it right.

It is unclear how the court will address confinement violations.  The DOJ said Juvenile Court employees sometimes held children in constraint chairs more than five times the 20-minute limit, and used pressure point control tactics - like bending the wrist back to force kids to the ground - even when no threatening behavior was apparent.

Juvenile Court Judge Curtis Person has always maintained his court is not racist.

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