Shelby County Commission (Photo: Shelbycountyyn.gov)
The Shelby County Law Enforcement, Corrections and Courts Committee voted to recommend the U.S. Department of Justice resume oversight of the county’s juvenile court system after concerns that current policies have failed to address racial disparities.
On Wednesday the Countywide Juvenile Justice Consortium (CJJC), a citizen-led board created to hold the juvenile justice system accountable, presented their findings to the committee, the latter of which concluded the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office has not addressed the county’s ethnic and racial disparities.
“The sheriff (Floyd Bonner, Jr.) called it heartbreaking, the report that he read,” said Commissioner Tami Sawyer. “It is heartbreaking that in three years since federal monitoring ended, we seem to be in the same situation, potentially even worse.”
In 2012, the Juvenile Court of Memphis and Shelby County (JCMSC) entered a memorandum of agreement with the Department of Justice (DOJ) after reports found that the county failed to protect the constitutional rights of children in delinquency matters, including failing to enforce rights of due process and non-discrimination, according to commitee documents.
The CJJC was originally created to be a community outreach program reporting on the JCMSC’s ability to meet its obligations under the MOA.
In 2018, county officials and former U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions terminated the MOA despite the DOJ determining that the juvenile court system had not complied with recommendations. These recommendations included having independent evaluations, and providing alternative detention and diversion programs.
After the DOJ’s departure, CJJC remained active, and in late 2019, began questioning the juvenile court’s lack of data. In March of this year, CJJC members were told “we should not bug them for data again,” said Dr. Jennifer Turchi, the CJJC’s vice chair.
Recently, the board issued a 10-page report that not enough data has been provided since 2018 to establish whether the JCMSC made progress. The CJJC recommended that the DOJ resume evaluation of Shelby County to identify whether the county’s juvenile delinquency proceedings offer equal protection and oversight regardless of a juvenile’s racial and ethnic background.
It's heartbreaking that in three years since federal monitoring ended, we seem to be in the same situation, potentially even worse.
– Shelby County Commissioner Tami Sawyer
As of Wednesday afternoon, Mahal Burr, the CJJC’s chair, said they had met with Shelby County Sheriff’s Office staff members but had yet to receive current data they asked for to address transparency issues. The latest information on JCMSC available is from 2019.
“As stated in our annual report, we have contradictory testimonials from youth and families who have lived experiences in the juvenile justice system and therefore stand by our request for current information and the need for an outside evaluation of the facilities,” said Burr.
While the number of juvenile cases has decreased due to the pandemic, a disproportionate amount of juvenile offenders are Black—about 90% of all cases—despite being only 64% of the youth population, said Turchi. Black youths also make up 98% of all transfers to adult facilities.
“Even more concerning, we don’t understand the underlying causes or mechanisms that are leading to these disproportionate outcomes,” she added.
Commissioners Van Turner, Reginald Milton and Sawyer asked to be added as sponsors to the resolution.
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