Shelby County Commission (Photo: Shelbycountyyn.gov)
On Monday, the Shelby County Board of Commissioners passed a resolution urging the U.S. Department of Justice to oversee the county’s juvenile detention centers after reports of racial disparities.
According to the Memphis Shelby County Crime Commission, violent crime rates overall have risen by 12.1% in comparison to previous years. Violent juvenile charges have decreased by 17.8% and delinquent juvenile charges have dropped by 8.0%. These drops may be attributed to intervention programs, with the commission aiming to reduce delinquent crimes by 30% in 2021.
In 2012, reports found that the Memphis Shelby County Juvenile Courts had failed to protect the constitutional rights of children in juvenile courts. Shelby County Government agreed to have the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) handle oversight and in 2018, county officials terminated the agreement and gave authority back to the Juvenile Court of Memphis and Shelby County.
Countywide Juvenile Justice Consortium(CJJC), a citizen-led board created in the initial agreement to hold the juvenile justice system accountable and continued to monitor the courts. In September, the group issued a 10-page report detailing that the juvenile court had yet to meet the specifications initially recommended by the DOJ to improve conditions.
As we seek a more just and equitable Shelby County, it's impossible to do so without looking at the staggering statistics in our criminal legal system and nowhere is that more obvious than in our youth legal system.
– Janiece J. Lee, Memphis Interfaith Coalition for Action and Hope
Although the court has released reports on juvenile detention centers, CJJC has not had access to the data in order to explain why more Black children were being transferred to adult facilities at higher rates. Because of this, 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 Shelby County’s full commission agenda.
On Monday, several civil-rights advocates urged commissioners to reinstate DOJ’s return to Shelby County
“As we seek a more just and equitable Shelby County, it’s impossible to do so without looking at the staggering statistics in our criminal legal system, and nowhere is that more obvious than in our youth legal system,” said Janiece J. Lee, vice-president of the Memphis Interfaith Coalition for Action and Hope.
In 2017, nearly half of all youths transferred to adult facilities in Tennessee came from Shelby County, or 92 children, said Lee. Davidson County only transferred four.
In 2020, the human-rights organization, Human Rights for Kids, ranked Tennessee as one of six states with the worst records for giving children protections during criminal proceedings. Other states included were Alabama, Georgia, Maryland, Mississippi and Wyoming.
Representatives from the juvenile court system said the allegations came as a surprise and are currently working on a survey requested by commissioners.
“I’m not sure where the communication breakdown is because I think most of the members of the commission understand that while we don’t always agree, I don’t think that’s necessary. What is necessary is to get to you what we have in our possession, and I do commit to doing that,” said Pam Skelton, chief administrative officer of juvenile court. “What I would ask is that we go back to the procedure that we were in when the Department of Justice was here, so that there’s no misunderstandings and no communication that goes awry.”
The Shelby County Sheriff’s Office also issued a response. Since 2015, the department has been working with the juvenile courts on improving juvenile detention facilities, and by 2018, they had met 38 requirements to comply with the DOJ. When the agreement 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 and everyone who wants to help these children,” said Debra Fessenden, policy advisor for Bonner.
Commissioners voted 7 to 4 in favor of passing the resolution. Commissioners Brandon Morrison, Mark Billingsley, David Bradford and Amber Mills were in the minority.
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