Guest Column

Detaining juveniles in a pandemic

By , Guest Columnist Updated: April 01, 2020 4:00 AM CT | Published: April 01, 2020 4:00 AM CT
Guest Columnist

Dan Michael

Dan H. Michael is the judge of the Juvenile Court of Memphis and Shelby County.

Critics of Juvenile Court of Memphis and Shelby County have suggested publicly that due to the seriousness of the COVID-19 coronavirus, all juveniles in detention within Juvenile Court should be released.

<strong>Judge Dan Michael</strong>

Judge Dan Michael

If these critics – and some are lawyers – are not aware of the legal reasons why juvenile detainees cannot simply be released, then they should be. 

The administration of Juvenile Court, including me as the judge, is not in charge of the detention facility housed inside of the Juvenile Court’s building at 616 Adams Ave. Five years ago, the Shelby County Sheriff’s Department assumed full responsibility for the security of Juvenile Court and that includes the detention area.

Criminal justice advocate urges release of juvenile detainees

The Shelby County Sheriff does not have the legal authority to release juveniles in detention. That decision rests with the results of legal proceedings pertaining to each detainee. All are in progress.

These critics also have said that because detainees are juveniles and they have not been convicted of a crime, they don’t pose a threat to the community.

That makes for a good soundbite, but let’s pull back the curtain on one given day and let’s review why these juveniles are in detention.

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On Monday, March 30, for example, there were 65 juveniles in detention awaiting legal proceedings. These juveniles were brought to Juvenile Court by law enforcement and subsequently were being held in detention to await legal hearings on serious charges that range from aggravated robbery to first-degree murder.

On that same day, of those 65 juveniles in detention, 17 were charged with aggravated robbery, 13 were charged with carjacking, two were charged with aggravated assault, seven were charge with multiple car thefts, eight were charged with first-degree murder, three were charged with second-degree murder, six were charged with handgun possession in a felony, three were charged with especially aggravated robbery, one was charged with multiple home burglaries, one was charged with rape, one was charged with fabricating evidence, one was charged with aggravated rape, and two were charged with violation of probation.

More than 200 inmates released over COVID-19 concerns, DA says

In other words, these juveniles remain in detention because they pose a danger to themselves or our community based on the charges they face. Which begs the question: Which of these juveniles would the public want released back into the community prior to a fair trial?

For juveniles facing lesser charges, all possible alternatives to detention are in place, including GPS tracking and home arrest.

Because of the insidious nature of COVID-19, the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office has already suspended all in-person visitation at the detention center and has made phone calls free so juveniles can keep in contact with family members. They now can talk with their attorneys remotely through video conferencing.

Juveniles in detention not only are monitored by professionally trained security officers for behavior, they also are given three well-planned and high-caloric meals each day plus snacks. They have time each day to exercise, read and watch television. And if any detainee shows signs of illness, access to medical care always is provided.

Coronavirus threatens vulnerable jail population

At Juvenile Court, we are aware of all efforts to reduce the spread of this highly contagious disease, and we have implemented strict measures to protect juveniles housed in the court’s detention facility.

Nothing is more important than the health of all juveniles housed in the detention center, all employees of Juvenile Court, and the attorneys who represent juveniles in detention. Restrictive measures have been implemented including no visitors inside the building, additional hand sanitizer throughout the building, plus extensive cleaning precautions.

Anyone entering the detention area must undergo temperature checks and lengthy questioning about their health and possible exposure to COVID-19. The detention area has a medical staff on site.

As our community works through the challenges imposed on us by COVID-19, Juvenile Court is adhering to all the regulations provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the Shelby County Health Department, and the Shelby County COVID-19 Task Force, not just for the protection of our staff and all juveniles housed there, but for the protection of our community as well.


Memphis-Shelby County Juvenile Court Dan Michael COVID-19 Shelby County Juvenile Detention Center


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