Juvenile court using video conferencing to keep cases moving

By , Daily Memphian Updated: April 22, 2020 4:00 AM CT | Published: April 22, 2020 4:00 AM CT

Memphis Shelby County Juvenile Court has gone to video conferencing for hearings to minimize the spread of the coronavirus, court officials say.

The virtual hearings started the week of April 13 and are being done through Zoom, a video conferencing application.

Juvenile Court Judge Dan Michael said the court held emergency hearings for children in detention and foster care when the March 24 Safer At Home order took effect, but other hearings and trials were postponed. As the pandemic continued, however, he said the court decided it needed to move forward with cases. 

“We decided to start using virtual hearings so we could get the folks into the hearings from their cellphones, if you will, so that we could hold those hearings and get those matters resolved as quickly as possible,” Michael said.

Detention hearings, report hearings and trials will be held by video conference. The court paid $1,800 for Zoom to connect prosecutors and defense attorneys to defendants and the judge in the courtroom.

“I have found it is very easy to do and very easy to use. The lawyers love it because they can sit in their office or at their home. The litigants love it because they can pull it up on their cellphones and participate,” Michael said.

Some, though, are questioning the use of video conferencing in court proceedings, especially for hearings involving juveniles.

“Hearings for the youth in detention certainly need to be held. They should not just languish in limbo during this troubled time,” said Bill Powell, a settlement agreement coordinator for the U.S. Department of Justice who worked with the court.

Powell added, however: “While I think videoconferencing may be a good option at this time, it does not replace the critical need for a plan to release everyone in detention who can be safely released.”

He also pointed to a recent report by the Illinois Juvenile Justice Commission on teleconferencing for juveniles that said video conference technology is inappropriate in juvenile proceedings.

The report cited adverse impacts, including negative impact on effective counsel, negative impact on the court’s impartiality and negative impact on engaging youth in court proceedings.

“It may be that, in these times, the advantages outweigh the disadvantages, but it remains that any decision to institute videoconferencing on a routine basis should be made with an understanding of the possible downside,” Powell said.

Michael Working, a Memphis defense attorney and president-elect of the Tennessee Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, said he wants to make sure juvenile defendants have privacy with their attorney during the virtual hearings.

“Only concern would be in a hearing, how does the kid watching remotely consult with their lawyer? There has to be a 'bat phone’ for the lawyer to talk privately with the kids,” Working said.

Michael said attorneys are allowed to meet privately with their clients via Zoom. He said Zoom has a function that allows the child and attorney to discuss the case privately.

The state Supreme Court suspended all court proceedings except for emergency matters involving juveniles until April 30. Hearings for defendants in custody are still being held. The court also gave courts, including juvenile court, permission to use videoconferencing while the courts remained closed.

Michael said the court is not dismissing any cases. He said if someone misses a court date, it will be reset.

Also, law enforcement is being told not to arrest anyone wanted on a child support warrant but instead to issue a misdemeanor citation in an effort to help reduce the jail population.

Michael said the court is also reviewing juvenile cases daily to determine which juveniles can be released from custody. He said as of Friday, April 17, three to five children had been released from a population of 58.

Shelby County Public Defender Phyllis Aluko said her office is working to get its clients – both adults and children – out of custody because of COVID-19. 

“We know that by giving our clients a chance to protect themselves from the virus, we are also doing our part to ‘flatten the curve’ of the impact of the virus on our entire community,” Aluko said in an emailed statement.

In the statement, she said the office had been representing 23 children at the juvenile detention center but has the number down to eight.

She said her office is also working on getting bond for clients at the Shelby County correctional facilities, including 201 Poplar, Jail East and the Shelby County Detention Center.

“Our office has also obtained judicial orders that should bring relief to entire classes of incarcerated people,” Aluko said.


Dan Michael Juvenile Court Phyllis Aluko
Yolanda Jones

Yolanda Jones

Yolanda Jones covers criminal justice issues and general assignment news for The Daily Memphian. She previously was a reporter at The Commercial Appeal.

Public Safety on demand

Sign up to receive Public Safety stories as they’re published.

Enter your e-mail address

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.


Want to comment on our stories or respond to others? Join the conversation by subscribing now. Only paid subscribers can add their thoughts or upvote/downvote comments. Our commenting policy can be viewed here