Shelby County leaders hope final DOJ report brings Juvenile Court changes

By Published: March 03, 2019 7:06 PM CT

Shelby County leaders say they are hopeful the final report on Juvenile Court racial bias will clear the path for substantive changes.

The reaction was in the wake of the report released last week from Department of Justice monitor Micheal Leiber, who concluded more work needs to be done to decrease racial disparity and inequity.

Shelby County Commission Chairman Van Turner said Leiber’s findings will likely lead to the commission discussing legislative policy changes regarding Juvenile Court.

OMER YUSUF: DOJ monitor submits final report on equal protection at Juvenile Court

“We need to ensure those improvements continue,” he said.

Commissioner Tami Sawyer, who chairs the law enforcement, courts and corrections committee, said the commission needs to take all of Leiber’s recommendations seriously and give them full consideration.

Sawyer said she didn’t expect much change from previous reports on equal protection, but the final report gives commissioners a “final baseline” to use moving forward.

Commission vice-chair Mark Billingsley said he is concerned about Juvenile Court's “slowness” in addressing the DMC -- or disproportionate minority contact, a term the report uses to address the disproportionate number of African-American children who are brought into the Juvenile justice system -- during the majority of the memorandum of agreement period with the Justice Department.

Billingsley said he is confident the current County Commission and Mayor Lee Harris’ administration can help address the issues at Juvenile Court.

“I’m optimistic as it relates to shining a light on these issues,” he said. “But I’m going to have to see the work being done, and the numbers changing, until the DMC comes down, and that can only be done over at Juvenile Court.”

Harris was out of town and unavailable for comment, county spokesperson Lauren Lee said.

YOLANDA JONES: Shelby County Juvenile Court Judge says he's continuing work to improve court

A spokesperson for Juvenile Court Judge Dan Michael said the court had no comment on the report Friday.

Bill Powell, the former settlement agreement coordinator for the DOJ’s agreement with juvenile court, said Leiber pointed out in his assessment that programs have been implemented to reduce the numbers of children coming to court, but has not tackled the DMC problem.

“It is a pretty damning thing to see those inconsistencies at every step of the way and nothing has changed,” Powell said. “I think those are problematic things and that’s why this report is so important and that’s why this work has been so important.

"This has been a critical issue for our community and, frankly, a critical issue for the justice system. It has got to be fair. If you’re going to have a criminal justice system, it has to be as fair as we can make it and this report shows that we have failed in doing that in Juvenile Court.”

What Leiber's final report found were key areas the court needs to improve:

  • Continue to monitor efforts and initiatives addressing disproportionate minority contact.
  • Conduct evaluations to see if initiatives are impacting disproportionate minority contact and also conduct several analyses as part of the evaluation.
  • Revise procedures and implement new strategies as needed

This was the 12th equal protection report submitted by Leiber to county officials. The first report was released by the Department of Justice in 2012, and Leiber has been the equal protection monitor for the past seven years.  

In the newest report released March 1, Leiber pointed out like he has done in previous reports that African-American children are still being treated unfairly compared to white children in similar situations at the court.

“For the most part, the data indicates that disproportionate minority contact has been present in each of the steps of the juvenile justice system and has remained steady or constant since 2010,” Leiber wrote.

He said it has just been in the past two to three years that the court’s leadership has begun to address contact with disproportionate minority court with the most recent revision occurring in August 2018. But, he said, there is not enough data yet to see if the issues have been addressed.

“Keep in mind that although the MOA covered over six years, it was not until the last two years that the Juvenile Court showed less resistance to the recommendations provided by the Equal Protection Monitor,” Leiber said.  “The failure to eliminate racial disparities or achieve equitable treatment of all youth in juvenile court proceedings in this regard would not meet the rating of substantial compliance with the MOA.”

When the DOJ abruptly ended its oversight over Juvenile Court after six years last October, according to Shelby County Juvenile Court's Dashboard, fewer than half the issues cited by the DOJ on equal protection were in partial compliance (46.9 percent) or full compliance (25 percent).

In February, Shelby County Attorney Marlinee Iverson announced she received authorization from all parties who signed the memorandum of understanding with the Department of Justice in 2012 for all DOJ monitors to submit their final reports on Shelby County Juvenile Court.

According to Leiber’s 2019 report, there are some things that have improved at the court since his last assessment.  He said the court has implemented programs like the summons review team that track the number of summons issued to youth, but pointed out that this program needs to track the number of children by race and “conduct a deeper” analysis.

Another recommendation from Leiber was for Juvenile Court to continue to work with the Memphis Police Department so both parties can improve communication regarding the call-in system to determine if transporting a child to the court is necessary.

He cited an unspecified time frame when MPD failed to call in nearly half of the 111 transports to Juvenile Court.

“Further dialogue with law enforcement about the number of juveniles transported to the court and immediately released where such transfers could have been avoided had the officers used the call-in program,” Leiber said.

Leiber also pointed out that he was glad to see that Juvenile Court had hired Melissa Sickmund, director of the National Center for Juvenile Justice and known as the “guru of juvenile justice statistics,” to address disproportionate minority contact. He said, however, that the court also needs to hire an independent researcher to conduct assessments on the influence of race/ethnicity on juvenile court outcomes.

“Such a practice ensures independence and replication; producing greater faith in what has been conducted and the accuracy of the analyses and results,” Leiber wrote.

Leiber, a professor of criminology at the University of South Florida, said Juvenile Court needs to not only implement initiatives and programs to address disproportionate minority contact, but needs to analyze data to find ways to fix the issues.

“Such an approach by the Juvenile Court will produce a better understanding of the DMC issue that directs initiatives and policies to reduce DMC and provide more equitable treatment for all youth in juvenile justice proceedings in Shelby County,” Leiber said.


Juvenile Court Department Of Justice Dan Michael Tami Sawyer Mark Billingsley Van Turner

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